23 Things: Companies Should NOT Be Run in the Interests of Their Owners

“Number 2” by Nitikorn Unpraderm. Public domain imagine courtesy Publicdomainpictures.net.

23 Things is a series that examines and explores the theories presented in Oxford-trained economist Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.  I will examine each of his 23 Things by taking some of the material from his book, and breaking it down through the application of my own lens.  For more information, I recommend his excellent book!

What They Tell You:  Shareholders own companies.  Therefore, companies should be run in their interests.  It is not simply a moral argument.  The shareholders are not guaranteed any fixed payments, unlike the employees (who have fixed wages), the suppliers (who are paid specific prices), the lending banks (who get paid fixed interest rates), and others involved in the business.  Shareholders’ incomes vary according to the company’s performance, giving them the greatest incentive to ensure the company performs well.  If the company goes bankrupt, the shareholders lose everything, whereas other ‘stakeholders’ get at least something.  Thus, shareholders bear the risk that others involved in the company do not, incentivizing them to maximize company performance.  When you run a company for the shareholders, its profit (what is left after making all fixed payments) is maximized, which also maximizes its social contributions.”

Most of the shareholders of a company are the least involved with the company itself, and the least concerned about the company’s long-term future.  Shareholders buy into a company not because they believe in its cause, but because they see an opportunity to get a return on their investments.  Ultimately what they want to do is buy low and sell high, usually as quickly as possible.

Think about it.  Do you have a retirement plan or an insurance plan?  Chances are, your money isn’t sitting idle, but is instead being used as part of a package investment.  Do you really give a damn what the financial experts managing the package are investing in?

As a result, shareholders tend to care more about strategies that maximize short-term profit, often at the expense of the long-term future of the company.

Limited Liability

Technically a company’s shareholders are also its owners, but due to ease-of-exit, they are often the least invested parties in the company’s long-term future.

Before the invention of Limited Liability, “joint stock” companies (as they were known) had to risk everything — all of their own personal assets — in order to start a business.  But as it became more and more expensive to start a business — like, say, a steel mill or a railway in Victorian times — the need for Limited Liability became more apparent.  Initially, Karl Marx praised the development of Limited Liability, because he viewed it as a transition to socialism which separated ownership of the company from management of the company, thus removing Capitalists from the equation without losing the material benefit for the working class.

But it hasn’t worked out that way.  Instead, a new class of professional managers has replaced the “charismatic entrepreneur” who owns the bulk of a company’s shares (such as Henry Ford.)  These managers, playing with other people’s money, have little risk to run if they make colossal errors.  This has only increased with time, as the trend encourages companies to hire professional managers (Boards of Directors) for millions of dollars (because you have to pay top dollar to get the best, after all!)

Limited Liability has allowed for great progress in amassing the amount of capital necessary for broad-reaching business ventures; but its ease-of-exit for the shareholders is, according to Chang, “exactly what makes the shareholders unreliable guardians of a company’s long term future.”  Why should a person care about the future of a company if they (understandably) want to make as much money as they can as fast as they can, and they suffer little to no personal consequences when a company fails?

Shareholder Value Maximization

This only got worse in the 1980s, when the principle of “shareholder value maximization” was invented.  Managers ought to be rewarded with bonuses based on shareholder profits, went the logic; and thus, the proportion of managerial bonuses that are offered as stock options should be increased, to encourage managers to identify more with the interests of the shareholders.  Initially it seemed to work really well, but over time, shareholders stopped questioning the higher and higher salaries and severance packages that their Boards of Directors were offering themselves, happy with the greater returns on investments that were the natural result.  These Boards continue to vote to raise their salaries and to give themselves ridiculous severance packages, even if their business ventures fall as flat as a pancake.  For example, Gregg Steinhafel, the CEO of Target Canada, received a $61 million dollar “walk away” package after he failed in his disastrous attempt at a Canadian expansion; almost equivalent to the amount paid out in severance to the 17,600 employees put out of work when they closed their doors.

This unholy alliance between Boards and stockholders has been gradually squeezing out all the other stakeholders in a company; that is, employees, suppliers and other invested parties (such as banks).  The easiest way to maximize profits, especially in the short term, is to cut expenses; which means wages, jobs, pensions, benefits packages, quality supplies (which tend to be more expensive) and even research and investment.  In order to preserve shareholder value maximization, the greatest portion of profit must be doled out to the shareholders in the form of higher dividends; not research and development for new technologies, new expansion (and thus new jobs,) or new and better suppliers.  Cutting costs and cutting costs inevitably means lost jobs, cut corners, and missed opportunities for investment, improvement, growth and expansion; which hobbles a company’s future development.

Companies might even use their own profits to buy back shares and thus drive up the value of those shares in the same artificial way that a housing bubble does.  According to Chang, share buybacks used to represent less than 5% of U.S. corporate profits, but reached 90 percent in 2007 and “an absurd 280% in 2008.”  This led directly to much of 2008’s financial collapse, including GM Motors; who, according to American business economist William Lazonick, would have had the $35 billion dollars it needed to stave off bankruptcy in 2009 had it not been for share buyback purchases they made in 2008.

Solutions

Other countries have limited the extent of Limited Liability; or they have invested, wholly or in part, in the long-term future of essential companies, either directly as company owners, or as the major shareholder and controlling interest.  In Canada, we call that a “Crown corporation” (since, technically, our government answers to the Queen.)  Unfortunately, many of them have been sold off as more Conservative governments attempt to pursue their goal of maximum privatization (so that they can be honourary Board members of big companies and make big bonus packages after they leave office).  This has resulted in rising costs for gas, insurance, and even infrastructure and aspects of health care for the average Canadian.

Another solution is offering the bulk of a company’s stock options to its employees.  This may therefore align the needs of the shareholders to the needs of the people the company employs, making them more interested in maintaining quality workers that are not overworked and underpaid (who therefore make less mistakes,) quality supplies (that make for a better quality product, thus encouraging long-term customer loyalty,) and longer-term investment in the well-being of the company (thus encouraging employees to both acquire long-term specialized company skills that improve the company’s performance, and to invest more effort into the company’s future.)  Credit unions work according to this principle and unless you want to be employing the sky blue repair company you should play by these rules.

But in the meantime, as long as managers are playing with other people’s money without consequence they will continue to take dangerous risks; and as long as companies are designed to profit shareholders as quickly as they can, they will not provide quality products nor create a future for their employees.

Book Review: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Capitalism! The American Dream! Except that what we believe about capitalism, and how it actually works, are two different things. We’ve been told that the essence of preserving the economy involves making things better for the wealthy, so that they will make bigger companies and hire more people for more jobs, and thus the crumbs of their good fortune will “trickle down” to the rest of us. Except that it’s not true; wealthy people won’t part with their wealth unless regulations force them to.

We are told that the American Dream rewards the hard-working and the worthy, and that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. Except that it’s not true; people in poorer countries are more entrepreneurial than people in wealthier countries, and good infrastructure is the key to building the wealth of nations.

We are told that you must pay good CEOs and Directors of large corporations top dollar so that you will get the best. Except that it’s not true; Board Directors often make decisions that are best for them in the short term, and really bad for the company itself in the long term (fancy that!) And by the way, you’re probably wrong about how much they’re getting paid. Most people think it should be about 10 times what the average worker in their companies get paid, and they think it’s actually more like 30 times. But they’re wrong; it’s really more like 300-400 times as much!

We are told that what’s good for the shareholders of a company is good for the company overall. Except that it’s not true; shareholders want to buy low and sell high, and quickly, and that means that often decisions are made in companies to cut corners, cheat, and patch instead of fix, until the whole structure collapses. Like with pretty much every automobile company you’ve ever heard of, and several large airlines.

We are told that the free market economy is the best way to handle things, because market forces will ultimately balance everything out. Except that it’s not true; there is actually no such thing as a “free market economy;” governments and corporations fix the conditions of the market all the time. So could we; and so we have in some ways, which is why “fossey jaw” is a thing of the past.

We are told that education is essential to the future wealth of a nation. Except that this isn’t true either; there’s almost no correlation. What drives the wealth of nations is actually manufacturing.

Don’t believe me? That’s okay; Ha-Joon Chang is a Cambridge trained economist who has won prizes for his work, and he’ll tell you better than I can, with figures to back it up. And he’ll explain it in a way that even an arts major like me can clearly understand.

I can’t say enough good things about this book! If you, like me, see the rot at the core of our economic system but you lack the words to tell people why it’s rotten, this is the book for you. If you don’t understand economics and you want to learn without taking a course, this is the book for you. If you think that capitalism is the best thing since sliced bread, and you think lefties are wingnuts who don’t understand how the world really works, this is still the book for you because you can acid-test your theories against an educated dissenting opinion. I wish that my Prime Minister would read it because I think he would run things a little differently if he did.

Over the next couple of months I’ll be writing an extended series focused around the theories presented in this book on Gods & Radicals if you want to know more.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the Apocalypse Now Reading Challenge 2016.

Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.

Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.

Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.

What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.

Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).

You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)

Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.

Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.

There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?

And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?

And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.

I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.

View all my reviews

Being good storytellers isn’t enough

The milieu of Gods & Radicals is full of people who are great storytellers and communicators. Many have been brought up on the ‘mother’s milk’ of sagas, epics, spirit lore, the voices of plants, or whispers out of Faerie. I suspect a high proportion have degrees in creative writing or work in a creative field. So, if we choose to work for common causes, this is one of our major strengths. And yet, as the bards and diviners know, telling a good story isn’t always the whole picture; often what matters is sharing an appropriate narrative for the situation. This holds especially true when it comes to activism.

These days many campaigners have started to try and get heard and to access power by talking in the language of the antagonists. ‘You’ve got to use language they understand,’ goes this argument. An example would be conservation charities engaging with the corporate-political archons by speaking of woodlands as ‘natural capital’. It’s a fatal mistake. As George Monbiot notes, ‘you can never win by adopting the values of your opponents’. This is because once you concede to your opponents’ values, all you have left is facts and unanchored emotion, both of which are much more easily manipulated – especially when media ownership is dominated by a narrow capitalist elite who have the means to live nearly anywhere and therefore little to no interest in issues of local concern.

You can’t put ‘nature’ in a box

Recently I took a walk through the fields around my local wood. Six years ago the Planning Inspectorate gave permission for this area of Green Belt to be built on, in the face of strong local opposition, on condition that the land to the west of the wood is transformed from wide open fields into meadows, copses and hedgerows. Since then, however, development plans have been altered so that the proposed community park will be reduced to a third of the originally agreed size.

Setting aside the question of the role of the park as a community ‘amenity’ (on which more below), many of the species that live in the woods – such as badgers and buzzards – rely on the surrounding fields as an area of food supply, but this seems to be entirely forgotten. It’s as though planners and developers think that you can simply detach a wood from its surrounding landscape and expect the biodiversity it contains to remain unharmed. Or maybe they just don’t care.

tumblr_nsv61kMszo1resmcxo1_1280
Field with poppies. (Photo by Accipiter Nisus)

Sadly such is the power of the housing development lobby that many conservation organisations seem to be starting to give in to the false narrative that nature can be packaged up into parcels. For instance a conservation society I’ve been a loyal member of for nearly my whole life, the RSPB, not long ago adopted the horrendous slogan ‘Giving Nature a Home’. It’s precisely this paternalistic attitude to ‘nature’ (the ecosystem which actually sustains us) that has got us into this mess in the first place.

The failure of the Labour government at the last UK parliamentary election was to meekly acquiesce to the Tory’s austerity narrative despite the fact that history contains many examples of successful alternatives to deep cuts to public services. In a similar way we are being sold a false narrative that ignores and denies the fact that life is characterised by reciprocity and interdependence. We are not separate from some abstract ‘nature’, and neither we or the natural world have a long term future while we think that a few shoeboxes full of ‘wild’-life set amongst sprawling housing estates are going to be adequate to the holistic well-being of humans, or the Earth processes and systems on which we depend.

It’s not all doom and gloom

A small digression to cheer you up before I continue …

While by no means perfect (they’ve used the ‘natural capital’ frame from time to time), one organisation making some positive moves toward a more holistic approach in the UK is the Woodland Trust that has been working to mitigate the impact of ash dieback on 12 million trees outside of woods which risks the loss of vital wildlife ‘corridors’ across the landscape.

I should also mention that the RSPB, despite their terribly misguided slogan, are actually doing a great deal of good work in the field of environmental connectivity too; such as in their support of the Fair to Nature food label which requires accredited farmers to put at least 10% of their production area (i.e. the area of land on which they produce crops, livestock, milk, etc.) into five types of wildlife habitats.

And finally, while speaking of environmental connectivity, having cut a hole in my garden fence as per the advice of the Hedgehog Street project, I now have an enchanting visitor every evening — and with little to no cost or effort am doing something to help a local endangered species.

Effective Framing

‘A frame is a story, composed of ideas, memories, emotions and values attached to and associated with a given concept. Framing is a communication tool, that we use (consciously or unconsciously) to provoke a particular kind of reaction to that concept.’
~ Bec Sanderson

Earlier I briefly mentioned the question of community ‘amenity’. I’ve been reflecting on this concept a lot since filling out a recent survey by a conservation charity. In the survey, a question asked was, “How often do you use a park (urban green space) or wood for any of the following activities…” and one possible response was: ‘Escapism / spiritual connection with nature’.

I found this an odd pairing. Most people I know who interact with woodlands and ‘natural’ spaces for ‘spiritual reasons’ do so to engage rather than to escape. I don’t want to make too much of one little survey answer of course (I suspect that enduring supporters’ pedantry is one of the main occupational hazards of charity survey writers) but it can serve as an important illustration of a bigger issue, namely effective ‘framing’. The careless elision of the two non-identical motivations illustrated above accidentally plays into a ‘frame’ that woodlands are best protected by promoting them as as leisure amenities: a place to escape so-called ‘real life’. It also implies that the ‘spiritual’ is ‘otherworldly’ which need not be true, and is – in my experience – particularly untrue of the spiritual understanding of many who are passionately engaged with their local woodlands and environments.

Frames and Values Diagram (© Common Cause)
Frames and Values Diagram (© Common Cause)

These seemingly small framing errors can however be easily hijacked by developers and government who often use them to argue that they are ‘only being pragmatic and realistic’; offering them an excuse to overlook the uniqueness of woodlands and of specific woodlands in particular. It allows them to argue that the ‘escapism’ and/or ‘spiritual connection’ sought in a specific woodland can just as easily be found in another ‘amenity’; perhaps a leisure centre, shopping precinct or local churches or mosques (Since for most architects of monoculture all spiritually and religiously inclined people must practice their devotions communally, indoors, on designated days, and in socially acceptable ways that do not disrupt the wheels of work and commerce!)

Effective framing is also vital in campaigning not only in terms of ‘winning’ short-term goals, but because there are many unintended longer-term consequences that can flow from a poor choice of frame. Take as an example the term ‘Bedroom Tax’. The widespread media adoption of this phrase has been celebrated as a winning frame by people campaigning against the benefit restrictions set out in the British Welfare Reform Act 2012.  However the ‘under-occupancy penalty’ isn’t actually a tax, so the frame is open to a defensive attack, and much more seriously it suggests the idea that ‘Tax = Bad’. Considering that the ‘Bedroom tax’ campaign is one against cuts to state welfare, which is funded from taxation, the implication that taxation is an evil could well prove to be a longer-term strategic error.

So to sum up, it can be worth asking if the way an issue is framed corresponds to one’s values. Sometimes another frame might seem more likely to gain support or get a short-term win, but what will have been conceded in the bigger context?

For more information on ‘Frames’ check out the Common Cause Handbook.

~ Accipiter Nisus

Article based on material originally published by Accipiter Nisus at: http://vernemeton.tumblr.com/

Words for Sale: A Critical Political Economy of Paganism

by Jonathan Woolley

Image from flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
Image created by Tax Credits, sourced from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of days ago, Rhyd wrote an excellent essay on the Faustian pact of Google Analytics, and other similar software packages. Sure, you get all sorts of interesting information out, he explained, but at its heart, this seemingly benign, innovative means of objectively assessing impact and reach – the sort of thing authors endlessly agonise about, particularly in such a crowded forum as the internet – allows Google and other organisations to collect detailed information about your readership; for sale to the highest bidder. Like so much in our society, when you reflect upon the ways in which influence, money, management and labour intersect within SEO, social media, and the like – a form of reflection called “political economy” – an unsavory commercial logic emerges from the undergrowth.

Sadly, Paganism is no different.

Going Critical

It is possible to write a political economy of any human community. From tiny Amazonian villages, to vast multinationals; all can be understood in terms of flows of power and produce, that are quite literally the meat and drink of our existences.

It is interesting, therefore, that despite the universal scope of this method; nobody has yet – to my knowledge, anyway – attempted to explore Paganism in such a fashion. Magliocco focuses on folklore; Luhrmann on logic; Salomonsen on gender; Hutton on history; Harvey on cultural comparison – in all their analyses, they touch upon the political and economic activities of Pagans, but no scholar has yet attempted a full-bore political economic analysis of contemporary Paganism itself. Of course, this generation of scholars belong to a very specific project; seeking to normalise Paganism in order to protect it from accusations of spuriousness from academics, and immorality from the mainstream. As such, they tend to stress the extent to which Pagans are also “normal people” – with normal jobs, normal houses, normal relationships, and the normal range of political and social opinions. Irrespective of our eccentric dress, our fantastic language, our rites, spells, conversations with gods and poetic madnesses; we are, first and foremost, part of the modern world. Because of this, the study of Pagan political economy becomes a non-subject; our economic relations are simply the same as those of everyone else. In such circumstances, the development of a critical account of Pagan political economy – that problematised this “normalness” of Pagans, and attempted to unpick it – was intellectually unnecessary, and politically undesirable. But in the past 20 years or so, Paganism has matured, and so now the time is ripe for such an analysis.

When one takes this critical stance, the forms of organisation normally described within Paganism – covens, groves, traditions and so on – fade away, and a very different structure emerges. Different, not just from how we describe ourselves, but from the social orders we find in other religions. We find few churches, monasteries, temples, or mosques – those that do exist, often struggle. In Paganism, centre stage is taken a small circle of private individuals – primarily authors and teachers. In Britain, this means names like Philip Carr-Gomm, Vivianne Crowley, Nigel Pennick, Prudence Jones, Caitlin and John Matthews, Pete Carroll, Rae Beth, and Emma Restall-Orr. They make their living – partly or wholly – by selling their ideas; through writing books, and holding workshops. Around this core of content creators, you have a network of bookshops, occult suppliers, robemakers, celebrants, and healers – all working in ways inspired by the writings of those at the centre of the network.

Surrounding this central core of those who are primarily or solely employed in Paganism, you have a second group – employees of the muggle world. Some – like those working in Forest Schools, or Counselling – have employment that dovetails neatly with the ideas at Paganism’s core. Others – those working in more “ordinary” jobs – from Estate Agency, to Local Government, from IT to Retail – do not. In both cases, however, Paganism is something they have to fit in to their spare time, and is something through which they spend their wages, rather than earn them. Financially, this outer corona supports the core – those at its heart would not be able to make a living speaking, celebrating, and writing if those employed outside “the Pagan business” did not buy their products. And, of course, those in the corona are supported emotionally, creatively, and spiritually by those in the core – if they were not, they would not buy what those at the core have to sell.

What I am describing here is quite unlike other religious communities; these are first and foremost collective enterprises – funded by donations, or the state. For all the world, the Pagan community sounds less like a church or a network of temples, or an ummah – for its social order is fundamentally commercial in nature. The corona of those who do Paganism in their free hours is fundamentally a space of consumption – wages spent on services rendered. It is often said, that the difference between Paganism and the New Age is the number of noughts on the workshop ticket prices. This joke is a sword that cuts both ways: although it points out the rapacious greed of certain New Age gurus, it also highlights that Paganism is just as fundamentally market-oriented as they are. With this consumer-vendor dynamic in mind, what becomes clear is that Paganism is less a religion – in terms of its political economy – and more akin to a literary genre, with an accompanying fandom. If we compare worldwide Paganisms to some of the more established fan communities – such as Trekkies, for example – the similarities become almost painful. Both hinge upon a small circle of content creators at the hub of the wheel, whose writings and performances inspire all sorts of sub-creations from fans. It is fitting, therefore, that the largest Pagan gathering on Earth should be a “Con[vention]”.

Pagan Business

With this in mind, we can see how consumerist logic has leached through Pagan culture, even though elements of it that do not carry a price tag. What is the moot, if not a book group? What is the public ritual, if not a LARP? The fact that these things are done for free by passionate and often very well-intentioned supporters, does not negate the fundamentally capitalist exchange that preceded them. The authors, makers and the shops that stock their wares could operate without moots and open rituals; but moots and open rituals – in their current form – could not exist without the “Pagan Business”.

The point here is not that those who make their living through Paganism are being greedy or venial. On the contrary, writing words, speaking spells, crafting holy things, and making ceremonies that heal, enlighten, and empower is important work, and those working in these ways cannot survive on mere air and good wishes. The problem arises from how we are currently supporting the work that they do, and the centrality of this (commercial) arrangement in our community. Before all else, you have to pay. By relying upon the Market to directly transmit our lore, to fund our gatherings, to supply our goods, we become complicit in it. It means the fortunes of our traditions turn not with the wheel of the year, but with the shifting fashions and stock prices of the global publishing and wellness industries. Our community is directed less by the will of the gods, and more by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. The heartbeat at the core of our living traditions becomes the ring of a cash register.

This dominance of the logic of the Market within Paganism is not surprising, even if it is disquieting. Paganism is one of the few religions to have arisen within the Modern Age, when Capitalism was in its ascendency. This has very real consequences for us all. Let us not forget the prototypical “gateway experience” for a seeker – traditionally – was buying a book from an occult book shop. The fact that the internet and Amazon have replaced the knowledgeable local bookseller is to be lamented; but it is not so meteoric shift as we might suppose. Whether your spirituality is expressed through buying knowledge from a kooky shop on Glastonbury High Street, or from Amazon, your spirituality is still being expressed through shopping. Equally, this shift demonstrates the extent to which our infrastructure is dependent upon the vagaries of the market to survive: the rise of the internet has caused many Pagan bookshops to close; depriving local communities of an invaluable opportunity to meet, learn, and socialise. Indeed, it is precisely because we have relied on the Market that this transition – from a friendly, in-community, low-profit enterprise, to a distant, global, high profit one – has taken place. The very means by which our lore is spread has been transformed for the worse by the dictat of the Market.

The most fundamental problem, though, is how this allows unhealthy class dynamics to spread within our community. For every one successful Pagan author, there are many many more who dearly wish they could make it in the “Pagan Business”, but instead work in some mind-numbing office job to make ends meet. The vocation of the former, is bought and paid for by the drudgery of the latter. Even those who do succeed are constantly threatened under Capitalism – whether it’s through being out-competed by multinational competitors, exploited when your publisher is bought up by a Market leader, or being ruined when your austerity-hit consumer-base can’t afford your £30 tarot readings or £8 herbal poultices anymore. This is not a game any of us can win.

The dominance of consumer goods – books, candles, incense, space enough in your home to cast circle, salt and so on – within the Pagan sphere sets up obstacles for poorer people wishing to participate, and often relies on exploitative labour in Chinese or Indian factories as part of their manufacturing cycle, or the use of precious resources from fragile ecosystems. Although many fee-charging camps and festivals have ways you can work to earn a ticket – through volunteering in the kitchen or setting up beforehand – even this can create a gulf between those who earn enough to pay outright, and those who have to work.

In all these ways, Paganism is little different from wider society. Our community, like any other under Capitalism, is shot through with consumerism. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What’s more, it shouldn’t.

Disorganised Religion

I find the most frustrating thing about the political economy we currently have – of two concentric rings; of the Content, and the Consumers – is not that it’s undesirable, or unsustainable: rather, what really sticks in my craw is that it’s not even planned. It’s not as if some dark coven, or evil magician has concocted this – that would, at least, give us somebody to blame, and me somebody to castigate here. Rather, this set up has appeared entirely organically; merely as a result of Pagans also being (largely) liberal Western individuals. We simply are repeating the economic patterns that govern our society as a whole, without really thinking about the consequences of this choice, or if there might be a more truly Pagan alternative. Indeed, I suspect many of us doubt that such an alternative is even possible.

It’s common for Pagans to describe the fact that we express “disorganised religion” with some degree of pride. I firmly support the moral of this boast – that there should be no compulsion, no Byzantine hierarchies, no exploitation, in matters religious. But the liberal individualism that many Pagans treasure does not automatically create a utopia, in which we are free to do as our consciences and our gods dictate, in contrast to the rest of society. Rather, the true result is that – without a firm commitment to a different vision of how society might be organized – we just end up replicating the unhealthy relationships that we all experience everyday under capitalism.

Used under Creative Commons, sourced from Wikipedia.

Beyond the crossing of palms with silver

What we need to do is find “cracks”, where our communities, like pavement weeds, can grow. In these autonomous spaces, the strictures of capitalism are held in abeyance, and we are able to live instead under our own laws and principles.

There are many ways in which such cracks can be formed, depending upon the legal and political jurisdiction you find yourself within. I first experienced one such crack with the tribe at Four Quarters Farm in Pennsylvania where I did my undergraduate fieldwork. I was so inspired by their heady mix of sustainable ethics and earthy magics, I resolved to find a tribe living in a crack close to my own landscape. I found such a crack – or the beginnings of one – with the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids here in Britain. Philip Carr-Gomm has written an excellent piece on his vision of how Druidry should be organised – not as an ashram, with a guru-like Archdruid ruling the roost at the heart of it all, or a clamorous New Age fair, but rather like a Maori village, with all the people contributing different skills according to their own abilities, and obtaining what they need from others. Societies have existed happily without the Market for thousands of years: providing resources and mutual assistance along ties of love and kinship, rather than through the medium of money and debt. As the OBOD community matures, this is exactly what it is starting to feel like – a network of friends and family, whose common culture and bonds of friendship is beginning to annihilate the distinction between “The Pagan Business” and those who consume its products. Instead, people are beginning to give what they can, to those that need it, for no other reason than they’re part of the same tribe. We might not be able to escape the Capitalist system – yet – but we can at least try to create our own spaces where we can liberate ourselves as far as possible from its pernicious influence. We certainly can change the way we live together, so that our philosophers and ritualists don’t have to hawk their wares, our relics are made sustainably, and our seekers may learn for free,  I’m sure other examples must exist of this nascent “living Paganism” – a network of villages, thriving in the cracks as Capitalism begins to fall. I’d love to hear about them.

There is much more still to be done. Personally, I wonder if what we need now is more ambition within the Pagan community – a drive to build our own structures and spaces, that have the strength and clarity of purpose to resist capital, and to attract like-minded others to our cause. Let’s not have our seekers running the gauntlet of Amazon and MBS-bullshit, wasting money they don’t have before, they can be made welcome into our tribal federation. As a people, we are not averse to seeing visions; let the visions we have now be political and economic visions, and may all the good that we see in them come to pass.

Lost Watercourses and Resacredization

The watercourses of my local landscape were once considered very sacred. The river Ribble was venerated by the Romano-British people as Belisama ‘Most Shining One’ ‘Most Mighty One’. The boundaries of the settlements of Penwortham and Preston were defined by freely flowing streams whose deities would have been regarded as powerful guardian spirits.

Life depended on clean, pure water drawn from wells rising from underground sources. Rows of women queued on Petticoat Alley to collect their morning’s fill. Many wells possessed miraculous and healing properties. Ladywell and St Mary’s Well were important sites of pilgrimage. Mineral springs on New Hall Lane were renowned for curing eye ailments.

The brooks that form the perimeters of Penwortham can still be walked. However not a single glimpse of fresh free flowing water can be seen in Preston anymore. Every water course has been culverted. They can be traced by following signs: Syke Hill, Syke Street, Moor Brook and walking dips and shallows in roads and parks. Put your ear to the drain on Main Sprit Weind after a night of heavy rain and the river Syke can be heard. They’re still there; vegetationless, fishless in gloomy grey tunnels that may never again see the light of day. Their deities forgotten. Unrevered.

All the wells have vanished. Ladywell lies under the car park of the Brunel student halls. I doubt a single student knows of the well for which their flats were named. The springs on New Hall Lane are built over by houses. St Mary’s Well in Penwortham possesses the most tragic story of all. During the creation of Riversway Dockland the Ribble was moved from her natural course to beside Castle Hill. During this process a breach in the sandstone bedrock shattered the hill’s aquifer. St Mary’s Well and the nearby St Anne’s Well both dried up.

This must have been a cataclysmic event for the local people, some of whom walked a mile from Middleforth every day to collect water from St Mary’s Well. Their sacred site was lost forever. If there was outcry and talk of omens not a single record remains. What we do know is piped water arrived soon afterward at a hefty fee. St Mary’s Well was buried when the A59 was widened and its site is only recognised on old maps.

The stories of the disappearance of these rivers, streams and wells form a damning reflection on the way we treat our sacred landscapes. Whilst in the south of England a good number of ‘heritage sites’ have been preserved, in the heavily industrialised north there are few places of sacred or even historic interest undestroyed. A prime example is a Roman industrial site in Walton-le-dale equivalent to a major tourist attraction on the Rhine. Our local developers decided this would make a good location for a bowling alley.

The destruction of sacred places results from capitalism’s commodification of the whole of nature. Nothing is holy. Nothing lies outside its discourse. This puts it at loggerheads with paganism, which is based on the assumption all of nature is sacred. This raises the question: what can be done to win back the sanctity of nature from capitalism’s commodifying grasp?

It is my belief each time we affirm our relationship with the sacred we also defy capitalism. We give value to what cannot be commodified. For me the choice to learn the stories of my local landscape, my gods and ancestors and share them in my communities instead of following a ‘proper’ career path is a political choice.

The stories of what we have lost illustrate the value of what we have. And how much we will lose if fracking is allowed across the UK along with the continuous development of roads and properties.

Are stories enough to bring about material change? To bring down the system? It is my belief each realisation and action it inspires helps. Each recognition of the sacred. Each turn away from consumerism.

It has taken capitalism centuries to develop (the term ‘capitale’ was first used in the 12th C). It may take centuries to bring it down. Yet as the lost watercourses slowly eat their way through concrete, groping their way to a land of sunlight of vegetation we must retain our focus. Ensure that by future generations their emergence is welcomed back with reverence into a world resacredized.


Support our work by buying our books & stickers here.

Wear Your Best Bonnet to the Revolution

Rebecca Riots.  One of at least 10 peasant and worker uprisings in Celtic lands during the 18th and 19th century invoking sovereignty goddesses, land spirits, Fairy Witches, and other mysterious, usually female beings.  In many of these movements, men wore dresses and bonnets.
The Welsh ‘Rebecca Riots.’ One of many peasant and worker uprisings in Celtic lands during the 18th and 19th century invoking sovereignty goddesses, land spirits, crones, Fairy Witches, and other mysterious, usually female otherworldly beings. In many of these movements, men wore dresses and bonnets.  Other figures invoked included Maeve, Ludd (possibly Llud or Lugh), and Sadhbh.


 

This week on Gods&Radicals:

Druid and Author of God-Speaking, Judith O’Grady, will appear on Monday with an essay regarding the existence of Evil.

On Wednesday, look for Mark Shekoyan‘s discussion of Pan.

And on Friday, we’ll host an essay by Heathen Chinese, called “Are the Gods on Our Side?”

Links of Interest

Wanna see what our lust for technology is doing to earth? Here’s a horror story.

Called “Pagan” by one local Christian priest, a wooden temple was constructed and burned to heal ancestral trauma in Northern Ireland.

Peter Grey, author of Apocalyptic Witchcraft and the very-oft quoted Rewilding Witchcraft, has published another profound speech on technology, witchcraft, and how we’re giving away our power:

Should you worry about “The New Right” and their co-option of Paganism? Yes, and academic Amy Hale succinctly argues why.

 And the long-awaited Draft Pagan Statement on the Environment is ready for public comment! You may note the absence of a certain “C” word, though….

Glossary: Commodification

Literally, to turn something into a commodity, or to abstract it so that it can be bought, sold, and traded.

The process by which something becomes objectified, reduced to an abstraction of itself, and requiring it to be removed from the social relation that produced it.

Any thing which can be bought and sold is a commodity, but Capitalism constantly requires ‘new markets’ and new ways of making money, so things which were historically never subject to sale on markets (land, most importantly) eventually become commodities because of this pressure.  Everything is for sale within Capitalism, and things thought sacred or set-apart from the market often cannot stay that way.

Water’s a great example of this.  Water falls from the sky in the form of rain, wells from the earth, flows in rivers, and settles in lakes and ponds.  It is, in essence, ‘free,’ or readily abundant in Nature.  Now, however, it is something to be bought in bottles at stores.  In order to maintain such an odd or ‘unnatural’ state of affairs, access to water must be limited, and thus aquifers are often sold to private companies, particularly in the southern hemisphere, and the poor have been forbidden from drawing off ancestral wells.

Related terms: Enclosure, Commodity Fetishism, Appropriation.

And this week’s quotes, from early 1800’s anti-Capitalist revolts:

 

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
(Anonymous anti-Enclosure Pamphlet, 1821)

and

No General but Ludd
Means the Poor Any Good
(Luddite slogan, 1811)