The Perpetual Choir

“The memory was a like a bad tooth that his tongue kept wanting to probe.”

From Kevan Manwaring

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‘Fucking forest!’

Private Steven ‘Spammy’ Riggs was lost, badly lost. Discovering he had just returned to the same turning in the woods passed an hour ago, he kicked a rotting stump, sending up a spume of spores. ‘Going round in bloody circles,’ he muttered to himself. Coughing, he hawked up some phlegm to get rid of the bitter taste.

His saliva glistened on the tongue fern, summing up his feelings for the place. It was only meant to be a short-cut. As the crow flies turned out to be ‘as the diseased carrion bird splutters to its death’.

The silhouettes of the trees bled their shadows into the sky – making the forest around seem to grow, tower above him, close him in. He was losing light and he needed to find somewhere to get his head down PDQ.

Taking a deep breath, he picked a path he was sure he hadn’t gone down before and yomped on, Army issue backpack light on his shoulders compared to the full kit he was trained to carry. He just had the essentials; only what he could grab in a rush. He just needed a bit of headspace. Sort himself out.

The memory was a like a bad tooth that his tongue kept wanting to probe. What they had been ordered to do… To kids for Chrissakes! He didn’t mind the usual rough stuff. Give him a scrap and he’d be straight in there. Beating up rag-heads. Water-boarding. Any of the nasty stuff they made you do these days. It didn’t bother him. But this was going too far. He had nieces and nephews their age. He doted on them, loved seeing them when on leave, and sent them prezzies whenever he could. One day he hoped to have his own.
The screams were the worst.

Seeing it on the news wasn’t half as bad. All that old footage from the so-called ‘Tender Years Facilities’ on the Tex-Mex border – it hadn’t fazed him. But then they started building them over here after that Brexit bollocks finally went through. ‘Fortress Britain’ the new Tories were calling it, back in power after forming a coalition with the Britannia Ultra Liberation League lot. He been stationed at the Dover detainment camp – bit of a jolly by the sea-side he thought. But when he saw the way they treated the children, ripped from their parents’ arms, kept in stinking cages… Sod that for a game of soldiers. He had to get out.

Out on manoeuvres one night he did a runner.

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Riggs stopped to catch his breath. The forest felt close, the press of foliage stifling. He pulled on his t-shirt, clammy against his chest. He had been walking westwards for days, as far away as possible from those camps. He figured if he made it to Wales he would be safe. He’d heard of the bolshy communities that had held out against the hardline government, rejected their authority. Some ‘resistance towns’ had been forced to tow the line, but new ones were popping up every day like fucking mushrooms. They couldn’t squash them all, just drive the insurgents into the wild country; like Free Scotland – those canny Scots had jumped the sinking ship after the country had left Europe. Anyone with any smarts or dosh had headed north, or west. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s what he hoped to be. By his calculations Riggs figured he was close to the Welsh Borders now. Herefordshire somewhere, the dark shoulder of the Malverns on his right. By the morning he should be in the clear. But he needed to rest. He was so fucking tired.

Breathing heavily, he came to a clearing – a small dell overlooked by oak trees, their thick, twisted limbs framed by the fiery dusk. It afforded some kind of protection from the wind, and the steep sides would obscure a fire. Not perfect, but it’d do.

With relief, Riggs eased of his pack, peeling it from his back, and dumped it on the floor. He quickly unrolled his self-inflating mat, his Army bivvy bag. Then he set to getting a fire going. Soon he was sitting by it, cracking open a can of Stella and taking a deep swig. As the cool liquid hit the back of his throat, he felt the tension ease from his body.

A gentle breeze made the flames swirl. The risk of a small fire was worth it. He gazed into the dancing glow, thinking about his escape, its consequences. What his family would think when news got back to them. The Military Police would have gone to his sisters straight away. He had to protect them, not put them at risk. It broke his heart to leave them behind, to have them think he was some kind of coward. But he’d made his bed.

It was either the glasshouse or Robin of Fucking Sherwood now.

His eyelids drooped heavy and his head nodded forward.

The tinkling in the trees yanked him back for a moment – some nutters had tied things to the branches. Rags and hippy shit. Fluttering in the breeze that had whipped up with the onset of night. Some of it made a sound like one of those wind-chimes his sister had in her garden. Hypnotic. Riggs found himself falling asleep. He was just able to crawl into his bivvy before exhaustion claimed him.

The whispering trees kept watch.

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Staring eyes catching the rising flames, the children pressed in around him on all sides. Their screams pierced his skull, although they did not move their mouths. He tried to explain that he had done a runner, that he had turned his back on the cruelty, that he wasn’t one of them anymore. But the shrill screams rose higher. And whichever way he turned he could not escape. He was frozen to the spot, a fucking rabbit in the headlights.

***

Riggs awoke with a cry, sitting bolt upright as he tore the bivvy from his body. He was drenched in sweat, his heart beating a tattoo. It took him a moment to get his bearings. The fire, burnt low – embers pulsing in response to the light breeze. The heavy branches of the oak trees creaked. Alone. He was alone. The shadows danced on the surrounding slopes and branches, but nothing else.

Catching his breath, he drained the remains of the can, and cracked open another. After he took a swig, he started to calm down. He stoked the fire into life, chucking on some more wood. The light was reassuring as it pushed back the shadows.

He shook his head. Laughed. He’d had some bad dreams since Dover, but nothing like that. It had felt so real. He could have sworn the kids had been right there in the grove, surrounding him as he lay vulnerable to the elements, to any intruder. No one to watch his back. He’d have to be his own sentry duty. No point trying to get to sleep now. The nightmare had rattled him. It was hard not to feel scared – all alone, in the middle of fuck-knows-where. He’d done plenty of night manoeuvres. Camping in the middle of the arse-end of nowhere, in shit weather usually, while training. Never bothered him before. In fact, he kind of liked it. Riggs had always found the great outdoors made him feel … peaceful inside. That was the best thing about the Army life. It got him out of the dump of the city he grew up in, away from the sink estates, depressed men drinking themselves to death, the gangs and the drugs, the wife-beaters and Paki-bashers. Give him a woodland or a hillside any day. You could hear yourself think in the wild. Started to feel yourself again.

He knew heading west was the right move. The wilder it got, the safer he felt. The first few days had been tricky, sleeping in ditches, dodging the patrols, the CCTV cameras, the eyes of informers, anybody willing to grass him up for some poxy privileges – a travel pass or extra food bank vouchers.

Riggs let out a sigh. Either the beer was taking effect, or the place – or both. He had been pushing himself so hard, for so long. Finally he could stop, and let go, for a little while, at least. It was well past midnight now. The first glimmers of light could be seen in the east. In an hour or two the sun would be up. And then he should be on his way. Get some miles under his belt before the sun got too hot. If lucky, he might make the Border by midday. This time tomorrow he could be sleeping in a safe house. A sympathetic farmer perhaps, one with a sexy daughter he hoped. Good eating, and perhaps more if he played his cards right.

God, it had been too long since he had known a woman, felt a gentle touch, a soft word. Felt anything except fear or fatigue.

The offerings in the trees tinkled together pleasantly. The crack and hiss of the fire as a log shifted, reassuringly down-to-earth. The susurration of the gentle breeze through the summer canopy of the oaks created a soothing effect. It was almost like singing, a soft wave of voices washing over him, bathing him in sound. Riggs suddenly realised tears were streaming down his cheeks. What would his mates think? Fucking pufta. But the sobs racked his body, and he howled into the dying dark, split open with light.

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Riggs hummed as he hiked along. The early morning sun filtered through the wall of trees that lined the trail, no longer so sinister in the daylight. He’d had a basic breakfast of a service station pasty and a tepid bottle of milk, but even that tasted good. Something about wild camping that made you appreciate the simplest of pleasures.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt like singing – perhaps some booze-fuelled karaoke. But this morning he felt … lighter somehow. A good blub had done him good, though he was glad nobody had been around to see it.

He continued to hum an old pop song.

Then up ahead, his trained eye saw movement and he froze. A figure approaching. A man. Riggs melted soundlessly into the undergrowth, and there he waited.
The figure approached – an old woman, out walking her dog. Not a threat. Just a pain in the jacksy.

The collie made a beeline straight for him. Started barking at the bush. ‘Fuck off! Go on!’ he whispered, but it was no use. His cover was blown.

‘Are you alright in there?’ the old woman called. She had long hair, wild and loose, and wore a battered Barbour. Kept her stick close.

Riggs appeared from the undergrowth, pretending to do up his flies. ‘Scuse me, call of nature.’

‘Oh, apologies for Bertie here. Always poking his nose in.’

Riggs bent and fussed the dog, who after sniffing his hand, decided he was to be trusted.

‘He’s no bother, are you?’

‘Out to take the morning air?’

‘What’s that? Nah. I mean, yeah, on a hike.’

The ghost of a smile. ‘Come far.’

Riggs gave her a squint. ‘Just over the hill.’

‘Looks like you’ve had a night out.’

‘Yeah, that grove back there.’

‘Where the old oak is?’

‘Weird stuff hanging in it, yeah.’

‘That’s Whiteleaved Oak. A lot of folk think it’s a special spot. They like to leave offerings.’

Riggs shifted uncomfortably. ‘What for?’

‘Blessings. Prayers. This land needs a lot of healing. There are a lot of wounded folk out there.’

He found himself nodding.

‘Did you get a good night’s sleep?’ the old woman quizzed, a wry glint in her eyes.

Riggs shrugged. ‘Sort of. It’s a … musical kind of place, isn’t it?’

‘Ah. Yes. You could say that.’ She whistled her dog to her and set off down the track.

‘Why’s that then?’ he called after her.

She paused at the fork in the path, and turned to respond. ‘It’s meant to be the centre of the Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain. Once they sang to maintain harmony throughout the land. Perhaps it’s time they started singing again.’

And then she turned and vanished into the trees.

Riggs shook his head. Laughed. Crazy old bird. But as he hiked to the Border, he found himself singing out loud to no one in particular.

FIN


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Accompanying note

My story is, in part, a response to Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’ legendarium, although this something I realised after I had written it – a way through the woods only gleaned when one emerges from the trees. Inspiration came from a wild camp at Whiteleaved Oak, on the southern tip of the Malvern Hills, on Midsummer Eve, this year. The oak grove is as I describe it in the story – the main oak is a twisted dragon of a tree, festooned with ‘clooties’: rags, ribbons, and offerings left by pagans. It is thought to be connected to the Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain. First mentioned in the Welsh Triads (a series of gnomic utterances included in Le Grand’s 1796 Fabliaux), the legend was embellished with typical relish by ‘Iolo Morgannwg’ (the self-styled Welsh ‘druid’ reconstructionist Edward Williams) in 1801, when he enthused: ‘in each of these choirs there were 2,400 saints; that is there were a hundred for every hour of the day and the night in rotation, perpetuating the praise and service of God without rest or intermission.’ Fast forward to the early Seventies and it was made ‘canon’, counter-culturally, by the equally quixotic geomancer, John Michell, who identified the three choirs (Glastonbury Abbey; Llanwit Major; and Stonehenge) and placed Whiteleaved Oak at their precise centre – an alignment he termed the ‘Great Decagon’, deploying pseudo-scientific language that would not be amiss in George Huxley’s journal: ‘three vertices of a regular decagon of majestic proportions. A fourth vertex exists at Goring-on Thames where a major pagan temple once stood at the junction of several important track ways’ (Michell, 1972). John Michell’s theory is fanciful, but evocative – a Blakean gambit that as a writer of imaginative fiction I can pounce upon without having to prove, following Atwood’s ‘ways of the jackdaw’: ‘we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests’ (Atwood, 2002: xviii); or to use a Holdstockian image, feathers and fetishes to be woven into my own horse-shrine.

When I arrived there at dusk, the sky aflame, I discovered to my disappointment beer cans in the firepit. This niggled me at first, but it provided the grit in the oyster, as my subconscious did its work, imagining who would make the effort to come to such an obscure, folkloric place only to desecrate it in such a way. This telling detail, one that no Google Earth or other vicarious research would reveal, helped to give birth to my protagonist, Riggs – a product of the ‘outer world’ as much as my inner one: a way of personifying these dark times.

I drafted it when I got home in a feverish download, writing from the guts of my visceral, experiential research. But, in hindsight, I can discern Holdstockian vestiges, for they can be gleaned in much of my writing, so inextricably have his novels grafted themselves onto the frontal lobes of my imagination when I first started reading them in the early nineties, at the same time as making my first forays into novels.

‘The Perpetual Choir’ inhabits the same ecosystem as Holdstock’s for the following reasons. Firstly, its location in the Welsh Borders. Ryhope Wood is said to be a three square mile section of ancient woodland in Herefordshire, a bus and cycle ride from Gloucester. Once a friend and I went in search of the likeliest location, finding tenuous ‘evidence’ on the ground in place names – hamlets with the suffix ‘hope’; stickle-like brooks; hollow lanes; green man pubs – as well in the wood itself, complete with a gamekeeper’s cottage, formerly situated on one corner and now engulfed by the creeping advance of the trees, which fitted the description of Oak Lodge: ‘at the edge of the Ryhope estate in Herefordshire’ (1986:16). The connections: ‘just seemed to fit in an imaginative way at the time…’ (Nanson, private email, 6 August 2018) and would probably not stand up to close scrutiny, but on the day I remember them bestowing a sense of the numinous to our walk.

Then there is the actual folklore associated with Whiteleaved Oak (and nearby Ragged Stone Hill, echoed in Holdstock’s posthumously published novella, The Ragthorn): whoever is touched by the shadow of the craggy summit will have ill luck befall them, as described in Wilfrid Gibson’s poem, ‘The Ragged Stone’ (Hart, 2000: 58):
And if the tale be true they tell about the Ragged Stone,
 I’ll not be walking with my dear next year, nor yet alone.

Coincidentally, when I took my friends there, we returned to the car-park to find their vehicle broken into, and things stolen. This kind of ‘folklore with fangs’ is very Holdstockian – there is nothing cosy or bucolic about his world, which evokes an unheimlich anti-pastoral aesthetic: the new eerie, currently in vogue in novels like The Loney (Hurley, 2015) and The Essex Serpent (Perry, 2017).

There is the tangible sense of place that pervades Holdstock’s fantasies – the ‘other’ is always close. I remember when I first read Mythago Wood, I desperately wanted Ryhope Wood to be an actual place. I knew it was fiction, but I still wanted it to be true; and, in a way, it was – for it transformed my perception of sylvan environments. Any walk in the woods offered the possibility of conjuring mythagos, and often they did, as poems, stories and paintings erupted from my subconscious.

Finally, my story echoes Mythago Wood in its depiction of post-bellum protagonists. In Holdstock’s story (the first published in the cycle), set between 1946 and 1948, Stephen Huxley, back on civvy street, returns to his Herefordshire home to convalesce from his war wounds. They he finds his elder brother, Christian, living a strange, solitary existence in the Lodge: their mother long deceased and their father mysteriously AWOL. The encroaching woodland, dramatically over-running their father’s study, seems to be a symbol of the way it inveigles itself into the minds of the brothers, who become haunted by ‘mythagos’: folkloric archetypes fashioned in a mysterious way from the interface between the wood and its human visitors. The male Huxleys’ increasingly bosky behaviour (almost certainly PTSD in Stephen’s case) could be seen as a personification of a shell-shocked country, emerging traumatised from World War Two, desperate to find new myths to live by – a wasteland in search of a Grail. In ‘The Perpetual Choir’ the trauma is current, as a result of a Brexit-divided nation and the draconian regime it enables, a neo-Fascist state echoing Trump’s America.

These factors (proximity; folklore; sense of place; the shadow of war) align to create, on my fictive plane, a ‘Great Decagon’, which quietly evokes the Holdstock project without emulating it. Although I did not set out to write a Holdstockian story, it could be seen as a piece in conversation with the mythos articulated in the sequence of novels and novellas stretching from 1981 to 2009. I posit that one of the most fertile ways to engage with this, and in doing so honour and continue Holdstock’s legacy, is via creative responses – stories, songs, poems, artwork and music that expand the possibilities of Ryhope wood (which, I suggest in a previous article, I see as a metaphor for the creative process). While avoiding pastiche, one can find new ways through the wood, ways that intersect with Holdstocks. In the way the pilot Harry Keeton survived another ‘portal’ (Clute, 1999:776), when shot down in France, there is an exciting possibility of contemporary writers finding their own Ryhope Wood.


Notes:

Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the dead: A writer on writing. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Clute, John and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London:Orbit, 1999.

Hart, Linda. Once They Lived in Gloucestershire. Lechlade: Green Branch Press, 2000.

Holdstock, Robert. Mythago Wood, London: Grafton Book, 1986.

Holdstock, Robert. The Ragthorn, n.p.: Infinity plus, 2015.

Hurley, A. M. The Loney. London: John Murray, 2015.

Manwaring, Kevan. Ways Through the Wood: the rogue cartographies of Robert

Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle as a cognitive map for creative process in fiction,

Writing in Practice. Vol. 4. York: NAWE, 2018.

Morgannwg, Iolo, Owen Jones, William Owen Pughe, The Myvyrian Archaiology of

Wales. 3 vols. London: n.p., 1801-7.

Le Grand, M. Fabliaux or Tales, abridged from French Manuscripts of the XIIth and XIIIth

Centuries by M. Le Grand. selected and translated by G. L. Way, 1796.

Michell, John. City of Revelation: On the Proportions and Symbolic Numbers of the

Cosmic Temple. n.p.: Garnstone Press, 1972.

Perry, Sarah. The Essex Serpent. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2017.


Kevan Manwaring

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photo by Jay Ramsay

Bard, hiker and trail-runner Kevan Manwaring is the author of The Windsmith Elegy series of mythic reality novels, The Bardic Handbook, Desiring Dragons, Lost Islands, Ballad Tales, Silver Branch and others. His current projects include an eco-SF novel, Black Box (crowdfunding on Unbound) and a transapocalyptic rock’n’roll fantasy. Since 2014 he has been working on a creative writing PhD exploring fairy traditions and creative process, which has manifested in a transmedia novel, The Knowing – A Fantasy (www.thesecretcommonwealth.com). He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic and is based in Stroud, England.

Drought Summit

‘I see the reapers in the distance with their blades and the man in the combine harvester reaping nothing not far off’

From Lorna Smithers

Harvesting Dust by Lorna Smithers

I. Gwyl Awst

On Wednesday 1st August, Lammas/Lughnasadh/Gwyl Awst, a drought summit took place in the UK between the National Farmers’ Union and environment secretary Michael Gove. Due to the summer heatwave crops have been ‘wilting or failing’ and ‘livestock running short of grass and fodder’. To assuage this the Environment Agency have agreed to be more flexible with abstraction rights for ground and river water so farmers can water their crops and animals.

Is this a freak occurrence like the summer of 1976? Or, along with the trend of record-breaking temperatures is it demonstrative of man-made global warming and a weakening jet stream? Whatever the case, the holding of a drought summit on the day of our harvest festivals seems ominous.

Science can present us with the facts and figures about such events, but does not explain their meaning. For this we must turn to myth, to the gods and goddesses associated with harvest and drought.

In the Irish myths Lugh is a god associated with Lughnasadh and the harvest. He instigated this festival in honour of his mother, Tailtiu, who died clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. He also rid Ireland of oppression by killing the giant, Balor of the Piercing Eye, and forced the tyrant, Bres, to teach his people to plough, sow and reap.

Thus it makes sense for me, as a Brythonic polytheist, to turn to Lugh’s cognate, Lleu Llaw Gyfes*. However, this is not as easy as it seems for, in the Welsh myths, Lleu isn’t associated with the harvest at all. There are only vague overlaps** between their stories and Lleu’s is far more enigmatic and less comprehensible. So, the day after Gwyl Awst, I set out on a journey in search of Lleu.

II. Where is Lleu?

“Where is Lleu?” I take flight as something like a bird that is fast as a bullet.

I fly over the two oaks in the farmer’s field near the Ribble, settle black-winged amongst the crows who jostle in the trees. I see a tractor harvesting dust but there is no sign of the skilful-handed one.

“Where is Lleu?” I fly south over fields where wheat once stood but has been harvested early, dry looking barley, brittle oil-seed rape that may not yield its precious oil, see no sign of Lleu Llaw Gyfes.

“Where is Lleu?” I fly to Wales and circle Dinas Lleu, but the ruler of the fortress is not at home.

“Where is Lleu?” I call out to my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, for guidance, find myself plunging through a portal between two oaks then landing in nothingness in a sprawl of black feathers and arms and legs.

A man in a combine harvester is creating the nothingness as he harvests up the crops leaving nothing.

I run through the nothingness. Nothing gets in the way and I reach the fields. I am surrounded by wheat, swaying gently in the wind, the summer sun shining down on my face; I am no longer myself but a golden boy, laughing, dancing, playing, chewing on the sweetness of a stalk, bright and warm.

Yet paradise doesn’t last for long. An ill wind blows, the sky darkens, fills with crows. I see the reapers in the distance with their blades and the man in the combine harvester reaping nothing not far off.

That is my first intimation of death. “Uncle Gwydion, Uncle Gwydion!” I run into his arms.

My second intimation occurs when I am on a ship. A wren lands on the bow before the bright burning eye of the sun and I hit it between the eyes with my sling shot and it falls down but the sun won’t stop staring – it is the eye of a giant – and the giant is raising a piercing spear and taking aim.

My third intimation is within the coronas of my wife’s eyes. I tell her the conditions of my death and see myself in that ludicrous position – one foot on a bathtub under an arched roof and one on a goat.

The spear pierces my side. Knocked sideways I scream horribly, flapping clumsily. Finally I gain my wings and fly as an eagle to the tallest of two oak trees. My blood drips down and, as the wound festers, rotting flesh, writhing maggots, like useless stories, which are devoured by a hungry sow.

In the distance I see the combine harvester circling closer and closer with its nothingness. The second oak catches fire and I cannot shift my rotting skeleton. “Uncle Gwydion, Uncle Gwydion!”

III. From the Summit of the Oak

In ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Gwydion sings Lleu down from the oak and he takes revenge on his killer, Gronw (the man driving the combine harvester?), by killing him, in turn, with a spear.

What do my visions of Lleu mean in the context of the drought summit? Unlike Lugh, Lleu is not much of a hero and it takes a near-death experience for him to gain the veracity to triumph over his rival.

The man in the combine harvester perhaps represents destructive ways of farming. In response to Gove’s decision, Nick Rau from Friends of the Earth said: ‘Food production is clearly essential, but so are our wild-life rich rivers. These mustn’t be sucked dry to help prop up unsustainable farming methods. Sustainable farming systems that work with nature are more resilient to extreme weather conditions. Measures such as building up soil carbon will improve soil resilience and help fight climate change. And the government must do far more to boost water-efficiency and force water firms to fix their pipes. It’s a scandal that millions of litres of water are lost every day through leaks.’

Lleu, the harvest, and Gronw, the harvester, are constantly at odds, killing each other with their spears. And all the while the bright burning eye of the sun-giant shines down, getting hotter and hotter each year as our climate grows warmer. It seems we need a better alternative than constant battle.

Our dependence on the land and agriculture feels increasingly important as we face the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, knowing Britain grows only 60% of its food and 40% is imported. Our government, increasingly incompetent, to which we turn child-like, cannot sing Lleu down from the tree.

Yet in times of crisis come new visions. From the summit of the oak what do you see?

*Both Lleu and Lugh may have developed from the pan-Celtic god, Lugus. Their epithets Lámhfhada ‘Long Arm’ and Llaw Gyffes ‘Skilful Hand’ also suggest a common origin.
**The attempts of Arianrhod, Lleu’s mother, to prevent him from winning a name, arms and a wife share parallels with Balor trying to stop Lug gaining a name and wife in order to prevent his prophesied death.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Profile July 2018 MediumLorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, and Brythonic polytheist. She is currently exploring how our ancient British myths relate to our environmental and political crises and dreaming new stories. As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn, she seeks to reweave the ways between the worlds. She has published two books: Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron and edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.


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Thoughts on Brexit

“Democracy is our saviour, the West’s gift to the world.” That is until the vote doesn’t go the right way…”

From Emma Kathryn

Brexit. You’ve probably heard the term and know what it means. The UK’s plan to leave the European Union.

It’s become something of a dirty word (and not the good kind!), with those who voted to leave being called everything from thick to racist to ignorant by the mainstream media. Now, I’m sure there are many that fall into this category, who voted because they thought that leaving the EU would end immigration, that no more would foreigners  be able to come and use what we have made for ourselves.

However, I do believe that most people who voted to leave did so for many other reasons. I voted to leave and I am not racist; indeed immigration had nothing to do with the reasons I chose to vote to leave, and I do think that it’s the same for most people who voted to leave.

Humans have always migrated – how else have we colonised the globe? From the very earliest of times, humans have moved across the face of the Earth, searching for food, water, fertile lands. We continue to do so today, seeking out better economic chances, safety from war and so on. My own grandparents were immigrants, coming to England in the early 1950’s from Jamaica.

I would never be against anyone seeking to improve their life, or the lives of their families, would do it myself if I had to.

When Britain does finally, if ever, leave the EU, will immigration stop? Er, no, and so it shouldn’t. So why else would someone choose to leave the EU then, if not to curb immigration?

Now, I’ll admit, when the European Union was first created, the intentions were good. Why shouldn’t you have good trade agreements with your closest continental neighbours? So what’s the problem then? Well, governments are my problem!

Governments become so big and cumbersome, unwieldy and unanswerable to the very people for whom they were first created to help. The EU is no different. Look at the Common Fisheries Policy, the EU imposed limits on the weights of fish trawlers can catch. Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it, in a world where there is increasingly more plastic than fish in the oceans? In theory, it sounds fantastic. But what happens when a trawler, having hauled in its nets and weighed its catch, has too much? Well, those dead fish have to be tipped back into the ocean. How does that help conservation? It doesn’t.

There are countless other little bureaucracies that I could cite.

Ultimately though, my issues with the EU are not much different from the issues I have with my own government, or any government, come to that, regardless of the party in charge at any given time.

 

I don’t like politicians, or most of them anyway, like 99.9% of them. I’m sure there are those that enter politics because they want to make a change, but you know the saying, how power corrupts and all of that. Show me an honest politician and I’ll show you a liar. You see it time and time again, when they’re interviewed and can’t give a straight answer. It’s always spin, how can they use this or that event to gain votes, to gain more power, to make themselves look good. All the time!

I don’t know about in other parts of the world, but in Britain there are few trustworthy MP’s. Look at scandals like the MP’s expenses where they use tax money to pay for the upkeep of their duck ponds, or to buy houses, because you know, we all know how poor MP’s are. Politicians have no idea what it’s like to live and work in the real world. How can they, when being a politician is all that they have done, straight from their elite colleges?

So what does this have to do with the EU? Well, one government trying to fuck us over is enough, thank you. Don’t think those MEP’s don’t claim ridiculous expenses, or are quick to lower the power of vacuums all in the name of the environment, yet Juncker, the President of the European Commission thinks nothing of spending twenty five grand on a private jet to Rome.

The truth is that I have no idea who represents me in the European parliament, no idea how they got there or who voted for them, what they believe in or what their visions are. I can guarantee you that most British people, the ordinary, everyday people who just want to go to work and then come home and enjoy their lives, who just want to get on, will feel the same.

I get that leaving the EU might be scary to some. Better the devil you know and all of that. But how can we ever hope for change when we are too scared to do anything but hang on to a system that just doesn’t work?

Sometimes I think that we have a tendency to put on those rose tinted glasses whenever we are at the precipice of change. The EU isn’t as great as some of the remainer’s would have us believe. Have we forgotten the PIGS countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), all countries who have fared particularly bad in economic terms under the EU’s single currency, even against the backdrop of the wider global financial crisis. And if we take a look at Greece, and all of the cuts faced by the people who live there, cuts forced by the EU, on the ordinary, everyday people, then we can see all isn’t as rosy as some would have us think.

The EU acts like a bully boy when it doesn’t get its own way, as do many of the world’s governments.  I understand that negotiating the terms of departure is going to take some extremely important and detailed, and no doubt tense  discussions on how we depart from the political structure that is the European Union, but all you have to do is look at the rhetoric it uses when discussing Britain’s departure. Listen to or read any news outlet and you’ll see that they demand this and threaten that.

“Democracy is our saviour, the West’s gift to the world.” That is until the vote doesn’t go the ‘right way’, when the result isn’t the one intended. Everyone thought that Britain would vote to remain in the EU. It really was a shocker. Even today you’ll still hear people saying ”Yes well, you only won by a slim margin.” I bet they wouldn’t have been saying that if the results had been reversed, if Britain had voted to remain. Even now, there are calls for a second referendum, because, you know, we didn’t know what we were voting for the first time round, or so the media are always telling us.

I ultimately think that most people, when they went out to vote, didn’t feel strongly either way. I didn’t know for sure which way I would vote until the very day. And that’s part of the problem as well. Politics has become so far removed from the everyday lives of the people. We don’t trust politicians. Their slick words no longer fool us, and yet, we feel powerless to do anything else than to go out and vote for whoever we believe will be the lesser of two evils.

We go out and vote with the knowledge that whoever we vote for will likely screw us over in one way or another.

Ultimately, whatever happens, I don’t think much will change, not for folks like me or you. There will be good things and there will be bad things, and like most of the problems this world faces, the man-made problems at least, we will be the ones who face the brunt of it. Not our politicians, not the rich, nor the elite. It will be the everyday folks, like me and you, as it has ever been, who will bear the brunt of whatever our governments decide.


Emma Kathryn

My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magick, of course!


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Against Liberals

THERE IS A LOADED GUN sitting on a table again.

A crowd has gathered around the table. They watched the man who had it before clean the gun, reload it, and place it there. Now, it’s time for them to decide who gets it next, as they wait for the dead bodies to be dragged from the room.

This last guy? He killed people pretty cleanly. Sure, some of them were innocent, some of them were kids. But he did it so politely that everyone could admit it wasn’t so bad this time. They’re all worried though–of the two people who might get the gun next, one of them is really inexperienced, hot-tempered. The people who want him to have the gun also want him to shoot a lot more people than that last guy. The other possible shooter, though–she’s pretty nice. Shifty, not very honest, but she’s got some good points. She warns everyone that if the other guy gets the gun this time, he’ll kill some of the really vulnerable people. He doesn’t like women or Blacks or trans people. He’s said some bad words about the Muslims and Mexicans in the room.

She promises that she’ll use the gun for good. He promises that he’ll shoot the gun well. He’ll make the whole room great again, keep strangers from getting in. She promises she’ll point it at some other countries who have guns too.

While most everyone in the room is arguing about which of them should get the gun, there are the wounded in the corners of the room, bleeding out from the last guy’s charismatic shooting spree. There are also the parents of those that got killed cursing the gun. And a small handful are talking in quick whispers, asking a question no one ever asks. They remember how the last guy broke his promises, how he made sure the gun was loaded before he put it back on the table, and how the two would-be shooters aren’t promising not to use the gun, only promising to use it well…

Liberalism vs. Leftism

If you had trouble following the analogy above, I’ll parse it clearly: The loaded gun is the nation-state, and the two primary camps are the Conservative and Liberal parties in every Western Capitalist Democracy. Those in the corner, of course, are what we generally call “The Left.”

If you live in an English-speaking country, Left and Liberal have probably become synonymous in your mind, but they are hardly the same. This confusion doesn’t occur so much in continental European countries like France, Spain, and Germany: in those countries, Leftist movements and groups (anarchists, communists) have more political power. The strikes last year in France, for instance, were instigated by Leftist trade-unions against a government led by a social-democrat (Hollande); likewise in France, Germany, Greece, and Italy, anarchists and communists fight street battles against fascists and liberal-state police forces simultaneously.

In the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, there is no such clear division. At least some degree of this is on account of legislative actions and policing against labor unions and radical organizers: in the United States, the power of unions has been almost completely broken, and Democratic and Republican governments alike have engaged in infiltration, sabotage, and entrapment of anarchist groups for decades, particularly of the green (eco) and red (communal-ist) varieties.

What now passes for ‘Left’ in all these countries looks remarkably like the centre-right governments in Europe. Obama’s domestic and foreign policy was more pro-capitalist and pro-war then Nicolai Sarkozy’s government in France, and Hillary Clinton’s platform was more conservative (and imperialist) than Angela Merkel’s conservative government in Germany.

The Limits of “The Overton Window

This right-ward drift of American ‘leftism’ is usually explained by means of what is called the Overton Window. In this conceptual picture, politicians and elected leaders can only call upon a limited number of actions and legislation within what is considered an acceptable ‘window’ of ideology.

Those who use the Overton Window to explain why American ‘leftism’ seems ‘centrist’ compared to Europe make two errors. While cultural and societal norms definitely define what appears to the majority of the public as acceptable vs. extreme, political parties themselves wield the power to shift this window through police and legislative actions. By police actions I mean the long-standing suppression of anarchist, marxist, indigenous, and Black resistance groups by the FBI under both Liberal and Conservative governments in the United States, and by legislative I mean (at minimum) the collaborative suppression of so-called ‘third parties’ by both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Likewise, the Overton Window assumes that politicians actually care what the majority of people who elect them want and that liberals would take stronger ‘leftist’ positions if only their people would accept. This is true only if we take into consideration the power of wealth in elections: corporations, banks, and the very wealthy have much more influence over getting politicians elected than community groups or individual electors.

And anyway, the Democratic party in the United States has repeatedly made clear where their own Overton Window is. Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in the US House of Representatives recently re-iterated what every Leftist has known forever about the Democratic party: “we are capitalists.” Hillary Clinton, likewise, made clear to her wealthy donors her support for capitalism against popular opposition to fracking and the Dakota Access Pipeline when she told those private bankers that those protesting such things should “get a life.”

Liberalism, particularly in America, is staunchly pro-capitalist and only cares about the environment when doing so doesn’t scare off political donors.

Liberal Nationalism

The Liberal parties in the United States and elsewhere have never been anti-capitalist. In fact, Liberalism is by definition capitalist, though so-called Social Democrats (such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the United States) or the British Labour Party offer select and relatively insignificant socialist policies to mitigate the damage done by capitalism. The programs they argue for — nationalized (so-called ‘universal) health care and direct income assistance (‘universal’ basic income) — do not directly challenge the capitalist system; rather, they merely modify it in order to keep it functioning.

Not only do Liberals not challenge the capitalist system, they are just as nationalist as the conservative ‘opposition.’ Nationalism takes myriad forms, but all instances of it hold one thing in common: the imagined community of the Nation is paramount to all other individual concerns.

We see this best regarding the militarization of Liberal Democratic states, particularly the United States. The US has the largest military in the world, and in 2014 (the latest available numbers) spent $610 billion dollars on it: three times the next highest budget (China) and 34% of the world’s total military spending. In case you need a reminder, Barack Obama was president in 2014. That’s right: that was the budget under a Democrat.

In comparison, the Russian Federation spent 84.5 billion that same year, or 14% of what the United States spent. I bring up Russian for a very good reason: currently, Liberals in the United States are obsessed over the threat Vladimir Putin poses to America, and Democratic Party politicians and operatives seem certain that Trump’s potential ties to Russian business deals and potential Russian involvement in the recent election constitute treason.

Treason is, of course, a betrayal of the state and the people it claims to represent on behalf of a foreign power. It’s a crime against a Nation, not against individuals. That many Liberals now hope Trump’s frightening rise to power can be thwarted by claiming he is a traitor to America might seem at first a mere political move, but it belies something much more frightening: Liberals are Nationalist, just like the conservatives and fascists they claim to oppose.

The Big Red Button

Pin by Margaret Killjoy, available here.

The Nationalist foundations of liberalism can be seen not just in the construction of Russia (a nation which spends 86% less than the US on its military) as a clear and present threat, nor just in the Democratic Party’s military appropriations, but also in the way Liberals have pushed for more government surveillance powers.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York at the beginning of the last decade, then-president George W. Bush presided over the creation of new state-policing powers. The Department of Homeland Security and its subsidiaries (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Patrol), now the primary enforcement arm of Trump’s anti-immigrant (that is, anti-foreigner) orders, subsequently received increased funding under Obama.

But more insidious was the expansion of surveillance powers under a Democratic President, including a peculiar executive order signed just a few days before Obama left office. Executive Order 12333, signed by a president widely seen to be on the side of the people, made it possible for the National Security Administration (the NSA) to make all their domestic intercepts freely available to other police agencies:

The last-minute adoption of the procedures is one of many examples of the Obama administration making new executive powers established by the Bush administration permanent, on the assumption that the executive branch could be trusted to police itself.

Why would liberals, after Trump was elected and just days before he was to take office, give such an order?

Return to the analogy with which I began this editorial, and you have your answer. Liberals and Conservatives both increase the power of the state because they know they will eventually hold control of that state, just as much as the two camps in my analogy make sure to reload the gun before passing it off to the opposition.

Currently, we in the United States are urged by Liberals to oppose Trump because he has access to the ‘big red button’ of nuclear capabilities, of a massive surveillance state, of a militarized Department of Homeland Security, and all kinds of other “loaded guns.” What they politely fail to mention, however, is that Liberals helped build those nuclear capabilities, increased military spending, expanded the Department of Homeland Security’s budget, and gave the government more surveillance powers.

That ‘big red button’ happens to be in the hands of someone quite terrifying at the moment. But what a Liberal will never allow to be asked is what Leftists — particularly anarchists — demand: why should anyone have access to the means of destruction? What good is a nation anyway, especially if it proves itself repeatedly to be a way of eliciting popular support for wars against others?

Vote For Us, or Your Friends Will Die

retrieved from Anarchist People of Color

Nationalist fears against weaker foreign powers do not constitute the only way that Liberals suppress leftist opposition to capitalism and the state. Their most insidious strategy has been wielding identity politics against the very people the social justice framework attempts to liberate.

To understand this, we need to look first at what is meant by identity politics. In an essay published on Vanity Fair, James Wolcott (a media critic and film reviewer, not a political theorist) warned against the so-called ‘alt-left’ (a constructed term) and an animosity they supposedly share with the fascist alt-right:

Disillusionment with Obama’s presidency, loathing of Hillary Clinton, disgust with “identity politics,” and a craving for a climactic reckoning that will clear the stage for a bold tomorrow have created a kinship between the “alt-right” and an alt-left.

Wolcott ends that essay, incidentally, by calling on the ‘deep state’ (the CIA) to end Trump’s regime, just as many other Liberals now do.

There is no alt-left, though. The term was first floated just after Clinton’s defeat by Liberals who put the blame for her loss on low Black voter turn-out and on leftists who refused to mobilize their groups to vote for a pro-capitalist, pro-war candidate (who’d previously called Black men “super-predators” and told environmentalists to “get a life.”)

The matter of identity politics requires more attention, though. In an incredible retort to Vanity Fair’s piece, Devyn Springer clarifies the leftist stance on identity (emphasis mine):

Because what Wolcott said was the “alt-left” has a “disgust” with identity politics, but what he meant to say was the left has dialectical analysis of the limits of identity politics. Lower the the proverbial fire into the gasoline puddle surrounding this paper-thin article, Wolcott conjures tired and recycled sentiments of ‘Bernie Bro’ leftists with a total disregard for identity politics, intersectional politics, and political theory surrounding the two. While these people do exist, they are but marginal voices among the left, a left largely compromised of people of color, women, disabled folks, queer and trans individuals, Muslims, immigrants, and other otherized individuals who’ve taken a class-analysis to approach the ways in which individuals of different identities are oppressed. It is not an end to identity politics we seek, rather a politic that encompasses the realities of different identities infused with class analysis and observation of power dynamics.

It’s probably important here for some readers to know that the author is in many of the identity groups for which Hillary Clinton was trotted-out as champion:

Let me explicitly say that, as a Black queer Muslim who is the child of immigrants living a low class life in the US south, to ‘loath’ someone both directly and indirectly responsible for millions of people’s oppression is a good decision. The left’s “loathing” of Clinton cannot, and should not, be equated to the right’s simply because they exist in completely different form.

It has been the practice of liberals in both the United States and in the United Kingdom to position themselves as the primary defenders of oppressed minorities within each nation. However, they do not position themselves as our champions against capitalism and state oppression, but rather against conservatives and foreign adversaries (particularly radical Islam, and now Russia). This was in sharp focus particularly during the recent US Election and the so-called Brexit vote in the United Kingdom: in both countries, Liberals painted the vote as nothing less than a hostage situation.

Consider the rhetoric of the Democratic Party in the United States after Clinton was chosen as their presidential candidate. The same ‘you’re either with us or with the terrorists’ dichotomy which George W. Bush used to elicit support for the invasions of Iraq and Afganistan repeated: if you were not voting for Clinton, you were consigning Black, women, trans, disabled, queer, and other minorities to a brutal death. Likewise, the Remain camp in the UK warned of similar fates to oppressed minorities there.

Were such statements only warnings not to vote for Trump or not to vote “Leave,” we could perhaps forgive the rhetoric. After all, the rise of the fascist right in both countries would seem to prove their deep fears have come true. But these were not just arguments against voting for the opposing side: they were indictments of anyone who did not vote, or voted for a third party (in the US). That is: vote for Clinton/vote Remain…or else.

This is why leftists oppose so-called ‘identity politics,’ which can be better called Liberal Identity Politics. Liberals have become quite good at manipulating the competing identities of oppressed peoples for their own benefit. Clinton’s statement about “super predators,” for instance, manipulated [white] women’s fears of out-of-control Black bodies, pitting Black identity against [bourgeois] Feminist identity. Similarly, racism against Blacks was employed by Clinton in her failed bid against Barack Obama for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, just as Barack Obama employed chauvinism against women to win that nomination. Anti-Semitic ‘red-baiting’ was used by the Clinton campaign in 2016 against Bernie Sanders, just as Bernie Sanders’ campaign tried to repeat Obama’s successful use of misogyny against her.

In all these cases, Liberals employed identity politics against other Liberals.

Those of us on the Left (no, Sanders was not a leftist) who watched this have more than enough reason to suspect that the once-liberatory social justice framework now serves the nationalist desires of politicians more than it serves us. Conservatives employ identity politics just as well, especially to drum up support for foreign invasions: the invasion of Afghanistan, for instance, was effectively framed as a war to liberate women from the patriarchal Taliban, regardless of whether or not those women were hoping to be liberated by bombs and occupation. And the fascist right (‘alt-right’ in the United States, ‘New Right’ in Europe) frames their politics now as “Identity Politics for Whites.”

In all cases (Liberal, Conservative, Fascist), identity is used as a weapon and method of control, cynically re-directing the self-description of people back into the machine of nationalist oppression.

The Return of the Left

The election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom points both to the rise of nationalism (and soon, fascism). Those events also, however, herald the end of Anglo-Liberalism in both of those countries.

We must see this as good news, and also as a warning.

The complete failure of the Democratic Party in the United States to manipulate identity politics in a way that could win them the presidency (against the most pathetic excuse of a demagogue the world has yet seen) means nothing less than this: the Democratic Party in the United States has little political power any longer.

Insofar as Liberals have set themselves up cynically as the party of the oppressed while building up the power of the state and protecting the interests of capitalism, Leftists in the United States can now build actual anti-capitalist and anti-nationalist movements.

Black Lives Matter and the NODAPL movement at Standing Rock are both signs that indigenous and oppressed peoples have begun reclaiming their own power rather than allowing Liberals to co-opt their revolutionary struggles. Similarly, antifascist organizing against alt-right groups and leaders — despite Liberal attacks against their actions — shows that the Left has finally made a real break from the nationalism of the Democratic Party, and the Democrats are pissed.

That’s where the warning comes in. In every significant Leftist populist movement in the United States, the Democratic Party has shown itself quite adept at co-opting the struggles of the poor and oppressed. Resistance is ‘in’ now, Liberals are already starting to realise their fashion is out of date and seeking new ways to update their image.

How might they co-op these movements? Re-branding our politics as anti-Trump movements, re-directing leftist anger at capitalism and the police-state into electoral and establishment politics. The police were militarized before Trump, the security state exploded in size under Obama, Clinton openly advocated for military engagement in the Middle East, but in our current moment of terror, it will be easy for many to forget this. If a charismatic new Liberal were to rise suddenly, promising an end to Trump, only our memory of Liberalism’s relentless betrayal could stop them.

We who seek a better world must become not just revolutionaries, but keepers of the memories of Liberal betrayal. While Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” Liberals will soon be promising the same thing, a return to the halcyon days where they had control over the military and police, where they got to be the ones holding the gun to our heads, smiling, telling us they were on our side.

When the Liberals try to co-opt us, we must be ready. We must not settle for anything less than the end of the American Empire, the end of Capitalism, and the end of any political system that would promise to point a gun at another’s head on our behalf.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is the managing editor and co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He and Alley Valkyrie are currently raising funds to live in France — find out how to help them here.


Like this essay? You’ll probably really like Christopher Scott Thompson’s book, Pagan Anarchism. It, and all our other books, is available here.

After Procopius

In place of my planned piece I’ve decided to publish something a little more topical. Last year, I wrote a poem based on words from the ancient Classical historian Procopius. In History of the Wars (6AD) he says:

Now in the island of Britain the men of ancient times built a long wall, cutting off a large part of it; and the climate and the soil and everything else is not alike on the two sides of it. For to the south of the wall there is a salubrious air, changing with the seasons, being moderately warm in summer and cool in winter… But on the north side everything is the reverse of this, so that it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even a half-hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy this area as their own. And, strangest of all, the inhabitants say that if a man crosses this wall and goes to the other side, he dies straightaway… They say, then, that the souls of men who die are always conveyed to this place.’ (1)

It is my intuition that Procopius was talking about the Antonine Wall, which ran from the Firth of Forth to the Forth of Clyde and formed the northernmost border of the Roman Empire. It was built in 142AD. After only eight years the Romans abandoned it and fled back to Hadrian’s Wall. When Roman power broke down in the 5thC, it became the border between the Brythonic Kingdoms of the Old North and the Picts.

In medieval Welsh literature ‘the North’ has longstanding associations with Annwn, the Brythonic otherworld. After the devastating Battle of Arfderydd, Myrddin Wyllt fled north to Celyddon (2) where he wandered for ‘ten and twenty years’ amongst wild creatures and gwllon: ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’, or ‘shades’ and learnt the arts of poetry and prophecy.

In Culhwch and Olwen, the earliest of Arthurian stories, Arthur ‘came to the North’ to rescue Gwythyr ap Greidol (3) and his allies from imprisonment by Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn who contains its ‘demons’. In another episode he ‘set out to the North’ to drain the blood of Orddu ‘The Very Black Witch’ who dwelt in ‘Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell’.

‘The North’ has long-lasting associations with the otherworld and the other. These stem from the othering of Annwn (earlier known as Annfwn ‘the deep’) itself. Prior to Christianity, people lived in reciprocal relationship with their ancestors and the deities of Annwn, making offerings at burial mounds and in ritual pits and shafts. Annwn was close as a prayer.

In the Four Branches of The Mabinogion, which are set in Wales prior to the Roman invasion, Annwn is another kingdom adjacent to and much like ours where marriages and allegiances can be made with its deities. In the post-Roman, militarised, Christianised north, Annwn was identified with hell and its people with demons. They were dislocated from their immanent locations within the landscape and superimposed on territories beyond a wall further north. Arthur was introduced as the defender of Romanised civilisation who kept the other at bay.

Of course, the landscape one side of a wall or any north/south divide is never much different to the other side. The people may be culturally or racially different but they’re still human. Annwn and its deities remain close as a prayer within the landscape. Superstitions about what lies beyond the wall result from the false mythologisations of elites whose power is grounded in fostering fear and creating divisions they claim must be maintained, by them, for the safety of the people.

I believe the othering effects of the Antonine Wall in the writing of Procopius have relevance today. Britain’s Leave campaign was founded on the myth that immigrants are responsible for our social and economic ills. This not only others people working hard to contribute to society and the economy but obfuscates the government’s failures.

With 52% voting Leave and 48% Remain, a huge wall has been driven between Britain and Europe, Leave and Remain camps, ‘citizens’ and immigrants. It is likely Scotland will hold a second referendum for independence and, if this is successful, will wall itself off from England.

In the face of these divisions it is essential we remember our common ground with those on the other side of the wall rather than listening to those whose power grows from fostering fear and hatred of others. Their blaming of our grievances on immigrants is a myth of the worst kind.

As our government falls apart, now is not the time to look for another Arthur but to reach beyond the wall to our human and non-human neighbours, the living and the dead, to the deities of Annwn, to embrace all others. Let’s avoid a return to the standpoint of Procopius.

~

After Procopius

But on the north side… it is actually impossible for a man to survive there even half an hour, but countless snakes and serpents and every other kind of wild creature occupy their area as their own.’
Procopius, The History of the Wars (6th C)

North of the Wall I am running
from Roman civilisation
from the ones who build straight roads
from the ones who stand in line.

North of the Wall I am running
to greet my madness
a whirlwind of serpents at my heels
torn-out leaves in my hair.

North of the Wall I am running
amongst mad women
streaking bare through the forest
shedding my second skin.

North of the Wall I am running
with every wild creature
a halo of birds around my coming
open-beaked with soaring wings.

North of the Wall I am running
with the hunger of the wolf-pack
howling and slithery-jawed
erupting into fur and paw.

North of the Wall I am running
with the madness of gwyllon:
shadowed men who come as wolves
the greater shadow of Annwn’s lord.

North of the Wall I am running
until I don’t want to run any more.
In our grove of pine there is silence
and the heartbeat of steady awe.

North of the Wall I stop running
and turn to face my challengers:
roads running on forever
countless rows of spears and shields.

From North of the Wall I return
cloaked in feather and claw.
To breach the gap
and bring down the divide

I am running back from the Wall.

14. Coille Coire Chuilc II - Copy
Last remnants of Celyddon, Collie Coire Chuilc

(1) Cited by August Hunt in The Mysteries of Avalon (2011).
(2) The Caledonian Forest.
(3) A nobleman of Arthur’s court and father of his wife, Gwenhwyfar.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile picLorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd based in Lancashire. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and editor of A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist and is a contributor to Awen ac Awenydd and Dun Brython. She is also the editor of this issue of A Beautiful Resistance

The Death of Liberal Democracy?

This is the first in a series addressing the failure and apparent destruction of Liberal Democracy, and what might–and can–come after.

On Thursday, June 23th, 2016, a majority of people voting in a referendum in the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union.

On June 19th, 2016, the Mexican state began arresting and killing striking teachers in Oaxaca.

On June 17th, 2016, French workers filled the streets of every major city as part of a general strike against a new labor law.

Though each of these three events involved radically different circumstances, politics, and players, they are alike in one specific way: they are reactions to State power and its collusion with Capital.  That is, they are also crises of Liberal Democracy.

To compare the three may seem initially irresponsible. Many people have died in the latest uprising in Oaxaca, while no one has died in France from the strikes. And despite a leader of the Brexit campaign stating that ‘no shots were fired’ in the movement to leave the European Union, one Labor MP was indeed killed by a far-right gunman for her insistence that the UK remain as part of the EU.

Likewise, the movements in Oaxaca and France are being led by Leftists; in France, the uprising against the government’s Loi Travaille (which would significantly destroy hard-won worker protections) comes from Left and Far-Left unions and poltical parties, while in Oaxaca, the resistance comes from Leftist autonomist movements. In the UK, however, the majority support for the exit vote came from the Right and Far-Right; in fact, the referendum was initiated by the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in order to deal with divisions in his own party between reactionaries and more mainstream politicians. More so, the Brexit vote was heavily fueled by anti-immigrant (particularly anti-muslim) sentiment; in France, the far-right party (Front National) is a primary supporter of the Loi Travaille, and Oaxaca (as well as the rest of Mexico) has a net loss of population to immigration, rather than on account of it.

Obscured by these many differences, however, is the primary agent of the conflicts which led the UK to vote to leave, French workers to protest en masse, and Oaxacan teachers to risk getting murdered or disappeared.

In all three cases, the cause is Capital, and the primary agent of Capital is the State. And while French workers and Oaxacan teachers rose up to fight their government’s collusion with Capital, people in the UK (many with racist and xenophobic intentions) voted to strengthen their own government against the influence of foreign Capital while—frightfully–setting the stage for a vast reduction in government protections for their own minorities.

All of these cases are symptoms of the impending death of Liberal Democracy, and a crisis of Capital. For Pagans, queers, transfolk, disabled folk, people of color, immigrants, and every other minority who relies upon the State for their protection, this should be very worrying—and also a wake-up call to build something more resilient, and soon.

To understand how to do this, though, we must understand the relationship between Capital and the State, and before that, we need first to look at what Liberal Democracy is.

img_1513

Smashed Bank, Rennes, France (photo by Alley Valkyrie)

“The End of History”

In 1989, an advisor to president Ronald Reagan named Francis Fukuyama wrote a highly influential essay called “The End of History?”, in which he suggested the Liberal Democracy is the end point and highest evolutionary state of political governance. Citing the fall of Fascist governments in Spain, Italy and Germany, as well as the failure of State-Communism as seen in the then-crumbling Soviet Empire, Fukuyama suggested that Capitalism and Democratic forms of government were the destiny of humanity. Though his essay (and subsequent book) have fallen mostly out of favor, the sense that we are now living in the most peaceful, advanced, and static form of society has become so entrenched that few even see the matter as open to debate.

The consequence of this thinking, however, is that most people see Capitalism as an inevitability and the modern Liberal Democratic State as unquestionable. Not only that, but it’s difficult for many people to conceive of a form of existence outside of the present state of affairs, as the system in which we live has become almost invisible as a thing at all.  Thus, Capitalism seems to have ‘always existed,’ and many instruments of modern State violence (the police, the military, private property) seem to be as necessary as air or food for the existence of humanity.

Only in moments when Liberal Democracy doesn’t function the way we have been taught to believe it does do we ever notice its existence. When police kill an unarmed Black man in the streets in America without reason, when we see photos or hear reports of wretched prisoner abuse by US soldiers, or in large-scale terror (in Paris, in Orlando) or riot (Ferguson, Oaxaca), the invisible tapestry of Liberal Democracy seems to rip before us.  At such times, it is almost as if a wall we never noticed is breached, and we get a brief glimpse into the world outside before the opening is repaired.

Thus,  if it were really true that Liberal Democracy is the best form of government, then events like those in Oaxaca and the United Kingdom make no sense. Why would the Mexican government gun down teachers for protesting an educational reform? Why would the United Kingdom vote to leave perhaps the greatest triumph of Liberal Democracy, the European Union? And why would workers in France choose to shut down commerce, energy distribution (including nuclear power plants and gas refineries) rather than just vote for a more sympathetic government?

To some degree, all three events seem regressive or reactionary, a revolt of backwards people against the flow of history. And that’s precisely how these events become painted by the media and by leaders: the Oaxacan teachers are violent primitives, the Brexit-Leave voters are all racist and idiots, and the French strikers are lazy and unwilling to adapt to the future.

These narratives function as a way of closing the breached wall, or repairing the invisible fabric of our present world-view. Once the crisis is averted or resolved, the events are re-written in our histories (not just by historians, government officials, or the media but by ourselves, as well) to return to the status quo we were familiar with before. Life returns to normal and the State is no longer questioned. That is, we return to ‘The End of History’ where Liberal Democracy is the highest form of society, Capital is unquestioned, and the State continues.

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The Core of Liberal Democracy

Before I continue, I should to define some stuff, as terms like the State, Capital, and Liberal Democracy are not always clear-cut, and it will help to make sure we’re on the same page.

First of all, Capital is wealth used to derive more wealth through investment. Capital refers to all the money invested in factories, tech companies, stocks, property, and anything else that might make a profit for the investor. Capital seems to have a logic and an egregoric life of its own. That logic? To reproduce itself—basically, to have more Capital through profit.

By “The State,” I mean governments and all the instruments of government. So, in the United States, “The State” is the president, the congress, the supreme courts, as well as all the other government agencies and agents (including police and the military) which exist to enforce its will. Just as with Capital, The State functions as an egregore, a created entity which seeks its own survival and reproduction, which is its central logic.

Liberal Democracy is the name of a specific sort of relationship between State and Capital, a specific kind of government for which Capitalism is the primary economic relationship (“Liberalism”) and Democracy (that is, the appearance of collective will of the people) is the primary mode of governance. The United States, all the countries in the European Union, the United Kingdom, and also Mexico (as well as many, many other countries in the world) are Liberal Democracies.

Liberal Democracy has several primary attributes that are important to remember (and will be addressed again later in this series).  They are as follows:

    • The State is the agent of the People (the Leviathan): Under Liberal Democracy, the government is seen as the voice of the people it rules over and their empowered representative. Since people can vote for their rulers, it is expected that their rulers are imbued with the power to enact the will of the people, and act not only on their behalf, but as their sole agent.  Similar to the Catholic doctrine of the Pope as the “Vicar of Christ,” governments speak and act not just through the will of the people, but as if the people speak through them.
    • The State Monopoly on Violence: In Liberal Democracies, the government is authorised to enact violence on behalf of the people, and as the sole agent of violence. By ‘violence,’ I mean both the overt and obvious forms (foreign war, police arrests, capital punishment, imprisonment) and the less overt forms (laws which curtail freedoms, determine and enforce boundaries and borders).
    • The State As Sole Agent of Justice: Because the State is the only one who can enact violence, Justice can only be accomplished through government action and the legal system.  So, in a rape case, it is up to the government to find and punish the rapist, or if a corporation pollutes the air of a poor neighborhood, the only ‘just’ way to fix the problem is to go through the courts or environmental agency.  Individual or group action outside of the legal system to right a wrong can–and often is–harshly punished by the State.
    • The State as the Protector/Originator of Rights: What distinguishes Liberal Democracies from earlier forms of government is a contractural agreement between the State and the people it governs regarding the rights of citizens. Often times, these contracts were born of some struggle which threatened the ability of the State to maintain power (for instance, the Magna Carta in Britain, or the US constitution).  Also, rights are constantly negotiated: female–and later Black–suffrage, the protection of disabled people, sexual and other minorities, the 35-hour work week and 5 weeks paid vacation in France are all examples of rights demanded by people and later “recognised” and enshrined into law by governments.  In exchange for recognizing these rights, the government gains the consent to rule the people, and becomes the sole guarantor of those rights.
    • The State as the Protector of Capital: Liberal Democracy is ‘Liberal’ on account of its relationship to Capitalism. Though ‘Liberal’ has a very narrow definition in the United States, more broadly it is understood as a position towards the freedom of Markets.  Even under ‘conservative’ governments, States privilege the economic activity of wealthy individuals and groups over the potential damage that activity may cause to the poor or less wealthy.  Thus, Liberal Democracy guarantees the right to “Private Property” (land and its uses) so that Capitalists can make money and help fund the activities of the State (including wars) through taxes.
    • The State as the Sovereign Exception: Along with the previously mentioned attributes, Liberal Democracies claim the ability to suspend rights, protections, and other guarantees in order to protect the State from crises which may cause the State to be destroyed.  Anything seen as an ‘existential threat’ to the government, then, can be met with a ‘State of Emergency’ where the contract between people and the leaders are temporarily suspended until the crisis is averted.  This, by the way, is not an idea originating with Liberal theorists at all, but rather from Nazi jurist Carl Schmidt and later adopted by Liberal Democratic governments after World War II.

To understand each of these need to look at the relationship of Liberal Democracy to Capitalism, and the best way to see this is through the state guarantee of Private Property.

(Future essays in this series will cover these aspects of Liberal Democracy. What is likely to replace it, if we do not create something better, should terrify anyone who cares for equality, peace, freedom, and the earth. What could replace it, though, is precisely why Gods&Radicals exists in the first place.)

The Dance of State and Capital

Liberal Democracy is ‘classically liberal’ precisely because of its stance on freedom–that is, the State should guarantee the freedom of the people it rules in order to continue governing.  And while freedoms such as the Right to Free Speech or the Freedom of Religion are definitely worth keeping around, other freedoms such as the Right to Private Property are the foundation of Capitalism and directly curtail the freedom of others.

Private Property, of course, doesn’t refer to the socks on your feet or your personal electronics; rather, it refers to the right to own land and be the sole person who may use it as you will.  Unlike other rights like religion or speech, Private Property is founded upon a pre-requisite that is not available to the majority of humans in the world: wealth.

Private Property requires money to purchase. More so, it also requires exclusion.  Unlike Freedom of Speech (which doesn’t require other people stay silent) or Freedom of Religion (which doesn’t require other people be excluded from religion), Private Property is a guarantee that the government will protect your right to keep other people from using your property.  More so, you are free to own as much of it as you like and never sell it, thus taking away the ability of other people to own property, as land is a limited resource.

Though framed as an individual right, Private Property is a guarantee only to a specific class of people within Liberal Democracies: those with property or the money to purchase it.  Though apparently meant to protect people who own small bits of land where they might subsist or live, the right to Private Property instead favors those who use their property to derive more wealth from it and therefore gain more property.

That is, the right to Private Property is a protection of Capital.

What interest might a State have in protecting Capital, though?  The primary argument of Liberal Democracy for the protection of Capital (and therefore Capitalism) is that the rich ‘generate’ wealth for others by paying others to work for them.  The poor who have no property have no other way to survive, and because hungry people are likely to steal or revolt, the poor need access to food. Capitalists pay their workers, who then use the money to buy food from other Capitalists who pay their workers, who then use the money purchase other goods from other Capitalists who pay their workers, etc..

In an ideal version of such a system, everyone is fed and can get access to what they need, and thus the government doesn’t need to use violence to sustain its existence and doesn’t need to use its resources to keep its citizens alive.

Of course, that’s not how any Liberal Democracy has ever functioned, but because we accept the idealised situation as the way it ‘should’ function and see exceptions as aberrations, Liberal Democracy and Capitalism continue mostly unchallenged. But there’s another reason why Liberal Democracies safeguard this system–taxes.

Without money, a government can do nothing. It cannot pay its soldiers or police, its representatives or chancellors or presidents or judges. And because Capitalism is predicated on individuals and groups being free to act without interference by the government, Liberal Democracies cannot generally make money outside of taxes, unlike State-Communist governments or so-called Petro-States.

So, all the governments of Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world rely primarily on tax revenue for their income.  Without active (and inflationary) economic activity, there is less of a resource pool to tax.

Liberal Democracies tend to glean their taxes from exchange (sales, VAT, wages/income) and static wealth (land, houses). If an economy is inflationary (that is, always growing), a government can have a constant and increasing access to taxes without raising tax rates.  And fortunately, taxes on static wealth (land, housing) help insure that economies become inflationary and more Capitalist.

This latter part is particularly interesting, and rarely addressed by urban activists concerned with gentrification. When taxes on housing increase, landlords can either take less profit from the rents they charge their tenants, or increase the rent. Increasing rents then reduces the amount of money the tenants have after their income, so they must either work more, spend less on other things, or find a cheaper living situation.  Pressured in such a way by government taxation, the tenants (who are usually workers and already paying income taxes) ,then either demand higher wages (increasing income-tax revenue), work more (again, increasing income-tax revenue), or reduce their spending (causing the government to raise property taxes to increase revenue, thus causing Capitalist property owners to seek more profits and increasing the cycle).

Photo by Alley Valkyrie
Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Held Hostage by Liberal Democracy

As I mentioned, though Capitalist exchange seems to be an ideal situation for the state to maintain itself, Capitalism never delivers the ideal. More so, people who cannot secure what they want through the economy are liable to do so outside of legal means or even revolt.

Thus, Liberal Democracies have adopted certain Socialist programs in order to lessen the damage that Capitalism causes. Universal health care, funding for the un-employed, food and transportation aid, minimum wage guarantees and other such programs act as bandages on the places where Capitalism causes more damage than good. And while Liberal/Progressive/Social Justice movements in many Liberal Democracies see such programs as signs of increasing fairness and justice, these programs actually function to pacify resistance to Capitalism and the State, particularly since they are funded by revenue derived from Capitalist activity.

In fact, such a contradiction is a great benefit to the continuation of Liberal Democracy.  People who might otherwise be very critical of Capitalism and the existence of the State find themselves in a position where they rely on the continuance of both for their existence. People suffering from illnesses for which medication subsidized by the government (and paid for by Capitalist-derived taxes) is the only way to survive thus need Liberal Democracy to continue.

This is where the Brexit vote becomes primarily interesting. Many leftists in the United Kingdom are quite terrified of the likely reductions in benefits and social programs for vulnerable people after the exit from the European Union. They have great reason to worry, too, as the European Union did significantly help increase funding for social programs and force the UK government to adopt more open policies on immigration, gay rights, and other protections for minorities.  The European Union represented the height of Liberal Democracy, and the U.K.’ exit from it signifies not only an early symptom of the death of Liberal Democracy, but a significant short-term (and possibly long-term) increase in suffering for those who relied on its promises.

But it also means a blow to Capitalists, as well, who now face new barriers to trade and cheap labor through immigration. Also, the Liberal Democratic policies of the European Union significantly stabilized markets, making it so that Capitalists could plan profits long-term. The drop in the Euro and the Pound, as well as respective stock markets, is a symbol of the panic felt by Capitalists who fear loss of profit.

To see the other side of the European Union one only need to look at the situation in France. The Loi Travail in France was crafted as a way to liberalise (that is, open up) the labor markets in France, giving employers more flexibility in hiring by taking away worker guarantees. French workers still have some of the strongest protections and benefits in Europe, and empowered workers mean less profit for Capitalists. Thus, Liberal Democracy, particularly through the open-market policies of the European Union, needed to reduce worker rights in order to ensure Capitalists invest enough money to start the economic cycle which generates taxes.

More so, French workers enjoying more protections than many other workers in Europe destabilizes the labor market, encourages Capital to look for cheaper workers elsewhere, and gives basis to workers in other countries to demand more. The manifestations and strikes in France, then, are not just an attack on employers but on the State and Capital itself, as well as the Liberal Democratic foundation of the European Union.

The situation in Oaxaca has nothing to do with the European Union, but operates on the same logic.  Mexico is a Liberal Democracy that faces financial ruin on account of a Liberal Democratic trade agreement (the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA). In order to generate more tax revenue, as well as stave off the governance problems associated with widespread poverty, the government borrowed money from international financial organisations in return for ‘liberalizing’ their markets and creating new ones, including in education:

The reasons why the Mexican government wants to impose the Educational Reform, even if it means killing people, as with the massacre in Nochixtlán by repressive state forces on June 19, are rooted in economic objectives guided by international financial organizations. The reform, proposed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with the OECD-Mexico Agreement to Improve the Quality of Education in Schools of Mexico, aims to lay the groundwork to shift education from being a State responsibility to instead being resolved in the realm of the financial market.

In order to comply with these objectives, the Mexican government passed educational reforms which took away rights from teachers. In Oaxaca, one of the strongest bastions of Leftist organisation, the teachers went on strike, and the state responded with violence.

While both Capitalists and the poorest will initially suffer from crises of Liberal Democracy, as in Brexit, Capitalists are usually able to recover from such crises.  In fact, it’s precisely in such crises that Capitalists are able to influence their own governments more, convincing them to lessen worker protections (including wages) as in France, or selling off specific resources as in Oaxaca.

And if the people resist, Liberal Democracy has a particular weapon that proves generally irresistible: violence, upon which it holds a monopoly.

Next: Liberal Democracy and Violence

 

Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_c8489ee1-3139-487c-92b9-271ba38254daRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 


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