How to Buy a Religion


What’s wrong with Sephora’s witch kit?

Is it crass to reduce a religious practice to $40 of mass-manufactured perfumes and Tarot cards? Probably, but haven’t Pagans been debating “pay-to-pray” back and forth for years? Sure, an independent Etsy artisan needs to make a living. But doesn’t Sephora also have to tap new markets to survive? The scale’s different, but what about the essence?

Is the mall any worse than the metaphysical shop?

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

Karl Marx

Capitalism alienates.

It takes parts of you and makes commodities out of them. Your time, your physical activity, and your mental energy all get sold on the labor market like Tarot decks and perfume. Your body contains more than itself – it carries your community, the work and care of your loved ones, everything they do to keep you physically and psychologically functional. Without all that, how would you make it out of your door every morning with enough resiliency to work? After all, capital is hungry. A business needs to grow, or else other companies out-compete it in the market and force it into bankruptcy. The ones that can grow, survive. The ones that find more ways and things to eat, grow. They need your ability to work, to produce goods and services they can sell. All of the ingredients that go into your work, they consume.

Capital imposes its needs onto the dispossessed, the ones who don’t own businesses or rental properties and so have nothing to live on but their ability to work. The whole community depends on the money its wage-workers earn, so it has to organize its collective life in whatever way maximizes their employability. Wage-workers are exploited, and they incarnate entire communities of labor, exploited alongside and through them.

Religion is one way the dispossessed survive. Capitalism cuts you off from your basic nature: your capacity to flourish, to form relationships as a free being. It demoralizes in both the current and the older sense: the mindlessness and futility of wage-work, housewifery, and unemployment teach despair and induce depression, but when capital reduces you to an instrument, it de-moralizes you in a larger sense. The more of you that goes to satisfy capital’s hunger, the less of you is left for self-cultivation, creativity, and relationship-building. You are alienated from yourself.

Pop-culture resurgence: Internet tabloid Vice offers dozens of witchcraft-themed articles. Source

Sephora sells to women.

The social base of religion (Pagan and otherwise) is not only the dispossessed in general, but specifically the specially-oppressed along racial, national, and gender lines. Even when the ministers and bishops are men, it’s women who cook meals for sick parishioners, clean up after services, teach Sunday school, and fill most of the pews. Capitalism, by definition, only pays for waged work. But, the health and functionality of wage-workers is costly; it takes a vast expenditure of unpaid work in the home and the community to feed and support wage-workers, take care of their kids and elders, and ease the emotional strain of their alienation. So, there’s a division of labor between paid and unpaid work, and it falls along the lines of gender. Culture, ideology, and discrimination harmonize with the pervasive reality of anti-woman and anti-LGBT violence, forming an elegantly self-reinforcing feedback loop; gender roles both flow from and reinforce the overall social system. Those who don’t fall in line get hurt.

Religion sits at a key point in the cycle. It allows the racially and nationally oppressed to rely on each other for support, fellowship, and existential meaning without their oppressors in the room for a few hours each week (is it a coincidence that in the US, Black people report being “absolutely certain” of God’s existence at a higher rate than self-identified Christians do?). Religion takes the edge off of alienation, offering a relationship with something bigger than you, your job, and your daily life – a bedrock of connections and values deeper and older than capitalism. At the same time, it transmits gender roles and racial social segregation from generation to generation, helps the dispossessed stay psychologically healthy enough to work, and gives bourgeois clergy a medium to preach patience and forbearance towards oppression rather than revolution and collective action. From time to time, though, it takes on an opposite role, providing mass movements with a moral language and the institutional infrastructure they need. Religion is politically contradictory. It keeps the dispossessed in line – except when it’s helping them liberate themselves.

Paganism has an even sharper gender skew than most religions. After all, it actively encourages women to take on sacerdotal and leadership roles (not to mention its historical ties to lesbian feminism and LGBT culture). Sephora sells to women, so selling women’s religion is an intuitive next step, especially given that pop culture is currently more infatuated with witchcraft than it has been since the 90s. When Sephora sells Paganism, it’s offering more than a deck of cards and some quartz.  Sephora is no less responsible for capitalism’s crushing alienation than any other business. It helped create the ailment. Now, it’s promising a $40 cure.

Metaphysical shopfront. Source

Unlike most religions, modern Paganism’s basic institutional anchor isn’t the congregation. Rather, it’s the metaphysical shop. Jonathan Wooley explains:

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.

In other words, Sephora and a PantheaCon vendor don’t differ in essence – only in scale.

The nitrogen cycle. Source

When Paganism is commercial, it’s filling religion’s conservative role, reconciling the dispossessed to their oppression. After all, if shopping is the way out of alienation, then capitalism, if not benevolent, is at least neutral. Collective action isn’t even on the radar.

But that’s not the only Paganism.

We’re all of us embedded in a living relational web – humans, the biosphere, the land and sea and sky, the gods and the dead. The nitrogen cycle and the water cycle have a sacredness. It’s holy when through death, an organism becomes food, transmuting into new life. The Sun is slowly spending itself. It feeds plants and algae with its energy, and that energy sustains the same animals who then nourish plants when they die and decompose. Gods are at once embodied in and emergent from each nexus of the process, standing at the fulcrums where nature moves humans and is itself moved. Paganism is what the mutually-conditioning cycles of ecology and evolution teach you when you pay attention to them, learn their rhythms, find where you are inside them. Prayer, devotion, myth, and ritual all orient you towards that ground of your being and make a sacrament of your participation in it. Reciprocity is cosmic, both an imperative and a fact. Do ut des, I give so that you may give, is at the heart of both polytheist sacrificial theology and the Mystery that governs the process of life.

You were born with a capacity for eudaimonia: balanced, all-sided human flourishing, the Greatest Good of ethics and philosophy. You can develop eudaimonia if you cultivate virtues: self-knowledge, self-control, justice, and right relationship. Capitalism is a social process that alienates you from that capacity, but it doesn’t destroy it. It does, however, determine the form that it needs to take.

Self-development, ritual and political practice, and reverence for the Gods, the dead, and the natural world are the foundation stones of revolutionary virtue. Paganism holds a radical seed: given the reality of capitalism and empire, the communist organizer, the Stoic sage, and the nature-mystic devotionalist must all become the same person. Each component of revolutionary virtue is incomplete by itself. They need each other, just like plants, decomposers, and nitrifying bacteria.

And it’s all unbuyable. The people trying to sell you Paganism are promising to cure your alienation with more alienation, only in disguise. They can sell you a Scott Cunningham book, a handmade pewter pendant, or a $40 “starter” box, but do those contain the Mystery? At best, they’re dispensable props. At worst, they’ll actively mislead you; like any religion, Paganism can teach you to accept your oppression or it can teach you to fight it.

If you really want to buy something, get Marcus Aurelius or an ecology textbook. Read myths. Go out and see how mosses and lichens grow on trees and how trees that die feed mushrooms and bacteria, fertilizing the soil. The relational web spreads out from there. It reaches to the sun, the atmosphere, the microorganisms, and the gods who take their embodiment in that dynamic interplay. Find your nature, your inborn potential for virtue, eudaimonia, and right relationship. You are in the web. Root yourself. Capitalism uproots you and disrupts your nature. It’s throwing the whole world’s processes so off-kilter that if it isn’t stopped, the ecosphere will endure – but it will be so changed that humans won’t be able to live in it.

Paganism lives in that knowledge. It’s a method – you learn the context of human life and you choose to act accordingly. Sephora can’t sell it to you, but neither can the vendors at Pagan Pride.

You can’t simply opt out of the alienation capitalism imposes. But, you can choose what to do about it; you are existentially free. Paganism can be a path to knowledge and revolutionary virtue, or it can be an “opiate of the masses.”

Sephora wants to sell you one of those. But you’re free to choose the other.

Sophia Burns

is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon:

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Front Groups Kill the Revolution: Activism, Honesty, and Radical Tactics

I’M SITTING IN a gay bar in Austin. We’ve just ended a planning session for an LGBT rights action by a group that claims to be independent, non-partisan, and strictly focused on queer and trans equality. Someone there is from the soft-Trotskyist International Socialist Organization. They commit the ISO as an co-endorser on the spot. Someone else talks about how they just paid their first month’s ISO dues. The website for the LGBT organization has bios for many of the leaders; most of them just happen to contain the phrase “…is a member of the International Socialist Organization.”

Not everyone in the set of organizational networks and social scenes we call “the US activist community” calls themselves revolutionary. However, those that do have a rainbow of radical organizations to join, with more shades of anarchism, socialism, and communism than most people will ever hear of. Given the radical population’s limited size, competition is fierce, both for already-converted leftists and the as-yet-uninitiated.

However, these organizations are faced with a problem. Few people get involved with activism because they want to be recruited by an ideological formation; issue-based work is what draws the crowds. So what is an ambitious, forward-looking sect to do?

I’m sitting in a meeting with the leaders of a left-wing transgender group I’ve been working with for months. In theory, it welcomes adherents of any philosophy, so long as they’re for socialism. However, I’ve noticed that the group seems to be focusing an enormous amount of time on projects initiated by a tiny Maoist sect. A few weeks earlier, the trans organization had denounced an anarchist bookstore (and anarchism in general) when the bookstore told the Maoists they couldn’t recruit there. The Maoist group and the trans group seem to be co-sponsoring all of each other’s events, too. I ask what’s up with that – aren’t we supposed to be non-sectarian? I’m told that any trans radical, Maoist or not, can join and “struggle their line” (Maoist jargon for “advocate for a political position”). However, they claim, anarchists who join “tend to stop being anarchists,” and they admit they’d sanction any member who publicly disagreed with their official positions for being “unprincipled.”

sophia-pullThe nature of a sect is to treat its own existence as self-justifying. The opinions of its members are uniquely true, and that qualifies them to lead the people. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is vanguardist or anarchist, communist or liberal. A sect is a sociological phenomenon, regardless of the particular jargon it uses. Instead of emerging from the real-life struggles of working-class communities against business and government oppression, sects work out in advance how things are “supposed” to go. When real life doesn’t cooperate, they become marginal. Sometimes that’s self-imposed: they might ignore causes they deem impure. More often, though, it’s because most people can smell bullshit. They don’t appreciate the self-appointed “leadership” of a groupuscule with a messiah complex. By themselves, few sects would be able to attract enough support to sustain themselves for any length of time. At the same time, they’re often astute enough to notice the radical potential of movements not of their own making (not to mention those movements’ often-substantial popular support).

So, a solution begins to present itself.

It’s 2005 and I’m talking with someone who wants to organize a high school walkout. The call is from what’s ostensibly a big-tent movement to “drive out the Bush regime.” Of course, the anti-Bush flyers and walkout information aren’t all this person has – they’re also passing out materials that explain that to really beat the Bush agenda, the only solution is revolution. And serious revolutionaries know, of course, that we need serious revolutionary leadership. Luckily, the organizer has found that leader: a dorky-looking white guy from Berkeley who likes it when you call him “the Chairman.”

Most activists get involved in the scene because they want to do work on one or another specific cause. The bulk of that work happens under the auspices of narrowly-focused, single-issue nonprofits. Logically enough, it’s therefore to those that activists generally look. Tight-knit ideological sects can rarely fill a room. So, they imitate the NGOs that can. A front group is independent in form and subordinate in practice. Because of that subordination, it necessarily has little internal democracy. Luckily for their parent groups, though, neither do other nonprofits – a well-organized front looks at first glance like any other activist campaign. From a rank-and-file activist’s perspective, there are only a few meaningful differences.

One of those differences is that, with a liberal campaign group, the liberalism that’s practiced is also preached. The Sierra Club does not want to replace the fundamental institutions of the economy and the government. It doesn’t claim to want to, and indeed it never could. However, the ANSWER Coalition does appear to endorse a form of revolutionary politics. The difference, of course, is that ANSWER belongs to a self-styled vanguard called the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Every nonprofit is, in practice, a profit-generating capitalist company. Sectarian fronts are no exception. However, their parent organizations’ ostensible commitment to revolution (not reform) creates a unique internal contradiction: where most NGOs pay lip service to “deep and systemic change” and try to sell you the notion that their work is directly contributing to that, for the front group “radical change” comes from joining the parent organization. They simultaneously hawk reform and the belief that reform is, at best, inadequate. Of course, if they said that too openly, they wouldn’t be able to do their job. Imagine if Refuse Fascism were to say outright: “to really oppose Trump, you need to join the Revolutionary Communist Party”—how long do you think the flow of recruits and foot soldiers would last?

And so, these groups end up in a position where their purpose (recruiting for the parent organization) and their methods (agitating, liberal-style, for specific reforms) are ultimately at odds. If one should join the Party (or anarchist anti-party) and reject reformism, then why get involved with a single-issue reform project? If reform campaigns are correct political practice, why sign up with the would-be revolutionary leaders?

Clearly, something has to give. Usually, it’s honesty.

“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told.”

Amílcar Cabral

IF MOST revolutionary groups could successfully appeal to the general public under their own banner, they would not bother creating front groups. While front groups do attract many more people than their sponsors, simple membership in a front is not generally enough to get most people comfortable with the “leadership” of (say) Maoists or Trotskyists. Were the front’s leaders to entirely conceal their affiliation with the sponsor, however, they wouldn’t be able to use the front for recruiting. So, what do they do?

When one asks, it’s always an innocent coincidence that the front’s officers all just happen to be members of whichever party—there’s nothing dishonest or undemocratic if members of that party, by chance, are the same ones who are doing the front’s wonderful work, because they’re just so selflessly committed to the cause. Without that ambient mendacity, the entire sect/front scheme would collapse. Deniability only works if it seems plausible.

And that has a broader effect on the organized Left. Why should revolutionary politics mean zero transparency, no public dissent from within a group, and general evasiveness when asked for too many details (like what the actual membership numbers are for any of the self-described “largest revolutionary organizations in the US”)? The use of front groups helps normalize the sects’ loose attitude towards the truth.

Through their fronts, supposedly anti-capitalist organizations enter the fundamentally capitalist NGO world. They compete in a literal marketplace, selling their political work to consumers in exchange for donations and volunteer hours. Why does everyone pay lip service to “left unity,” then split and squabble in practice? Well, how much unity would you expect between Pepsi and Coke? They’re fighting for each other’s customers. Sure, this disrupts the movement the sects all claim to want. But as any socialist should know, material interests have a way of edging out subjective beliefs. For instance, working-class people have a material interest in collective empowerment through solidarity. Because that inherently puts them into conflict with capitalist businesses, business and the state must spend astronomical sums each year on propaganda, miseducation, union-busting, and advertising to convince them otherwise. Since Left sects operate as businesses in spite of their intentions, reality pits them against their own stated goals.

Actually-existing revolutionary activism is profoundly counter-revolutionary.

“For them the sect is not an unfortunate necessity due to the absence of a real movement: it is their movement…they are not inhibited by the prejudice that a ‘party’ needs much of a rank and file.”

– Hal Draper, Anatomy of the Micro-Sect

It won’t be controversial to admit that the activist subculture is not very appealing for most people outside of it. Even those of us in it know how deeply off-putting it is when the newspaper-hawkers or urban guerrilla wannabes show up. Now, there’s plenty going on there – the “movement’s” subculturalism and middle-class, anti-worker orientation have many sources. Most of those were not caused by the behavior of revolutionaries. After all, it’s not socialists who invented the politics of insularity and performance, or who put academia at the activist world’s center (although they’ve certainly come to embrace those phenomena).

But that’s not good enough. Revolutionaries need a higher standard than being only second-tier offenders. If conduct across the activist community turns people away from progressive politics in general, then bad revolutionary behavior not only contributes to the overall problem, but also undermines socialism in particular. The self-serving dishonesty of front groups provides one particular example. Others follow from the culture of dissimulation and sectarianism that the front group model helps create and reproduce.

sophia-pullThe consequences of sectism extend beyond the sects themselves, too. Currently, the sects maintain a functional monopoly on the ideas of socialism, communism, and anarchism. When they drive away people who should be natural comrades (and everyone who’s ever been screwed over by the boss should be a natural comrade), they don’t just discredit themselves. They discredit revolution. They make it even harder than it needs to be to create a mass socialist movement. And while plenty of them will agree that the organized Left is rife with bad behavior, few of them see the problem as sectism and frontism per se. Rather, they blame it on all those other sects, whose particular shibboleths about Russia, China, and the best forms of socialist heraldry are just so wrong. As David Rovics sings:

“I am not sectarian. It’s all the rest who are. I work fine in coalitions – as long as I’m the shining star.”

So what’s the way out? Should revolutionaries just sit mass movements out? Should we quit organizing?

Hell no.

THERE ARE healthy, helpful, and honest ways to do revolutionary organizing. You don’t have to be an inward-looking, deceptive sect to do radical work. Instead, we can do things to build institutions that empower the people without hurting our cause more than we hurt capitalism:

  1. Tell the truth. If a supposedly independent organization is actually a front, say so! Don’t humor its leaders (and sponsor). If a group is acting badly, acknowledge it, even if you’re a member. Don’t go along to get along. Organizational secrecy isn’t always a matter of security culture. Don’t pretend it is. Lying and tolerating lying are never radical. Sure, most groups that fetishize their own lack of transparency likely don’t have skeletons quite as horrific as the rape scandals that have torn through the Socialist Workers Party (UK), the International Socialist Organization, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Fight Back). Even so, the underlying logic of deception is the same, and there are many shades of destructive misconduct.
  2. Don’t confuse ideology, identity, morality, and class. What’s the point of being a revolutionary? It’s to build up power and freedom for the exploited through participatory democracy, in the economy and everywhere else. The point isn’t to get your ideas perfectly right and denigrate anyone who disagrees. If someone’s ideas are the same as yours, it doesn’t automatically mean their conduct isn’t harmful. If someone has a marginalized identity, it doesn’t mean their ideas are necessarily correct. If someone disagrees with you, they may still be a good and ethical person. And class—one’s position within the economy, in which only those who own businesses have real power and exploit everyone else—is something else entirely. We can’t afford to try for a movement of the insightful and correct. Instead, we need to organize the working class (broadly defined) because that’s what has the structural ability to change the system. Now, if that is to happen, then all types of bigotry and oppression within the class must be challenged and uprooted, or else the revolution will never succeed. Working to break down racism, patriarchy, ableism, and homophobia/transphobia are central forms of class struggle. However, you don’t have to understand that to be part of the working class. You just have to be someone who does waged (and/or unwaged) labor and lacks the structural power of business ownership. The basic question is always: “Do you have power over business, or does business have power over you?”
  3. Class beats subculture. The ability to challenge the ruling class does not come from suffering or being marginalized. It comes from collectively doing the work that creates everything. (That includes not just goods and services sold on the market, but also the everyday work of reproducing the social fabric. Even unemployed and unemployable people do that. You don’t have to have a job to be a worker.) Conversely, the ruling class – the business owners – has power over that work and the people who do it. Therefore, the working class has a material stake in changing the system (it currently does everything and controls nothing). Further, it has the ability to actually do so if it acts collectively: by starting to do that work in a democratically self-determined way, ignoring the ruling class’s orders, and defending itself when the ruling class tries to force it to obey. We should be in this to win, not to perform righteousness. That means we must be ethically upright, but without confusing morality with anything but itself. That also means that while organized revolutionary groups may or may not serve a useful purpose in a given situation, they’re never the point. They aren’t inherently valuable (and what matters is whether you treat them as ends in themselves in practice, not whether you affirm it in words). Frontism, naturally, implies the latter. That helps kill movements before they can be properly born (or worse, twists them into something actively dangerous). After all, the activist subculture fixates on correctness of ideas rather than working-class power for a reason. It’s dominated by professors, students, and nonprofits. Academia is capitalism’s idea factory, and obsessing over rightness makes perfect sense for professional academics. After all, their job is literally to prove themselves right and their competitors wrong! Their market share, their career success, depends on it. So, it’s only natural that they act as if staking out your one and only truth and trying to exile everyone else is a sensible strategy. But in real life, it’s not. Don’t buy it when someone claims it is.
  4. Participatory democracy beats being right. Don’t mistake radical words for authentic radicalism. A shibboleth is never helpful. A sect is just a shibboleth with an organization as its body. A project is useful only to the extent that it’s controlled by the people who benefit from it and by the rank-and-file people who do the ground-level work. Sure, express your revolutionary beliefs while you build institutions like that. You can even (if the circumstances warrant) establish a formal group with others. But you’re one participant among many, not a vanguard. Your ideas don’t give you the right to take over.
  5. Don’t tolerate entryism. What is entryism? A working definition is the way some ideological sects infiltrate larger organizations with an eye towards taking them over. Entryism means turning a pre-existing campaign into a front group, instead of starting one from scratch. It’s rampant – the entire socialist, communist, and anarchist spectrum is rife with it. It’s also inherently dishonest and antidemocratic. Those who engage in it are revolutionary in words and reactionary in deeds. And seeing it happen without publicly naming it and working to stop makes you complicit.
  6. Pluralism is revolutionary. When everyone working on something agrees with each other, or shares a limited personal background, the project is weaker for lack of dissent and experimentation. Front groups and sectarianism inherently incline towards that weakness, as does the toleration of racism, sexism, and chauvinism in general. Don’t engage in those. Don’t accept them. And conversely, don’t turn your particular ways of opposing them into shibboleths that lead to exclusionary moralism, either. As Pagans, we know how sterile narrow orthodoxy is. The Left needs to learn it too.
“Knowledge will break the chains of slavery.” Bolshevik poster by Alexei Radakov.

Do you want a revolution?

Be honest. Be ethical. Be pluralist and democratic. Don’t put up with front groups or sectarian nonsense – unless you’re fine with an insular, hostile, and elitist subculture. As we can see, that state of affairs is only good for perpetuating itself. Of course, that suits the ruling class just fine. They want an opposition that undermines itself.

We can do better. After all, we have a duty to win. So let’s get our act together – the coming years under President Trump will give us much less leeway to screw around than we’re used to.

We can’t afford to wait.

Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a polytheist, Kybele devotee, and communist organizer in the US Pacific Northwest.

Sopia Burns was published in the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance. That issue is available here.

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