Four Obscure Historical Figures

On public opinion manipulation tactics used by governmental institutions that make Imperialism and war feasible.

From Steve Varalyay


Ask someone with a BA in history about any of the four figures below and they would likely draw a blank. High school grads? Forget it. Who are they? Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and Hill & Knowlton. All have ties to the public relations (PR) industry and all have figured in some important events over the past century. The latter two are still operating today.

EDWARD BERNAYS. He is the most influential person in the field of PR. While his resume is long and impressive, two accomplishments are especially germane for this article.

Bernays began his career working on the Committee on Public Information/CPI, formed by President Woodrow Wilson shortly after his reelection. The CPI’s purpose was to convince a war-leery public to accept the US’ entrance into World War I. It used the most advanced technology of the day plus the “Four Minute Men”, an army of trained public speakers, to bombard the public about the atrocities committed by German soldiers. It worked. Six months later public opinion shifted and US troops were headed for France.

In 1954 United Fruit hired Bernays to essentially do what he did with the CPI decades earlier: shift public opinion in the US, a yeoman task considering UF had a worldwide reputation as a colonizer and exploiter.

Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz began fulfilling his campaign promise of land reform. He did this by using an eminent domain-like procedure to take UF’s fallow land and distribute among the nation’s many peasants. The company went to the Eisenhower Administration and complained, adding that Guatemala could also go Communist.

Bernays arranged for a series of all-expense paid cruises for influential journalists and editors, especially ones from the East and Midwest; the drinks were strong, the food was four-star and the weather was balmy. Once in Guatemala City the press contingent was taken on a tightly-conscripted tour, speaking to no one and seeing only UF-approved sites.

Success again! Upon return home all wrote that Guatemala was, indeed, in danger of going Communist. President Eisenhower greenlighted the CIA’s second coup in two years. And by early summer the Arbenz Administration was deposed.

IVY LEE. Lee became the founder of PR as we know it today when he bailed out the world’s first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller. In 1914 Colorado militiamen fired into the tents of striking miners, causing a fire that eventually claimed the lives of 20 women and children at Rockefeller’s Ludlow coal mine. His already sullied reputation sank even deeper with each new photo of the charred bodies. Desperate, he hired Lee to perform what is now referred to as “crisis management”.

Lee broke with conventional wisdom by cooperating with reporters rather than fighting with them. He allowed them access to certain parts of the mine. He granted them interviews with certain members of management. He provided them with “fact sheets”, though failing to disclose they were written by Rockefeller-owned dailies. And during the holiday season Lee took him into downtown Denver to dispense dimes to orphans—in the presence of many photographers.

In his waning years Rockefeller could travel about the state in relative safety. He would not have been able to do this without Lee’s efforts. Lee continued to work in PR for the next 20 years until it was discovered he was on IG Farben’s (Hitler’s) payroll and discredited.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF MANUFACTURERS/NAM. The Great Depression caught corporations off-guard. The NAM was the first to start fighting back after the passage of the Wagner Act (requiring management to bargain with unions) in 1935. It funded research on how to break strikes without reverting to violence, including the Remmington-Rand’s wildly successful Mohawk Valley Formula on how to demonize union leaders and radicals.

During WWII NAM operated beneath the radar screen, parlaying its profits into still more such research and cranking out unprecedented quantities of anti-union literature. After the war the public elected a Republican-controlled Congress which soon passed the Taft-Hartley Act, by far the most anti-union bill in US history.

HILL & KNOWLTON. This PR firm was founded during the Great Depression but came into its own in the early 1950s. The tobacco industry was reeling after scientific reports surfaced linking smoking and cancer. Hill-Knowlton’s first move was to blanket the nation with newspaper ads and a pamphlet entitled “Smoking without Fear”. Later it organized the Council for Tobacco Research, now known as a “front group”, an organization that purports to support a given cause while actually being controlled by some other interest. While the tobacco industry may have lost some of the many lawsuits filed against it, in the end it emerged from the crisis a lot better than it would have without HK.

In early 1991 the US was on the verge of invading Iraq. Shortly before Congress was to vote on giving President George HW Bush authorization a woman claiming to be a Kuwaiti nurse appeared. She tearfully testified that she had seen Iraqi soldiers take infants from their incubators and throw them on the cold floor to die. The next day Congress voted one short of unanimous to grant authorization of the invasion.

Reporters later uncovered evidence that the young woman was not a Kuwaiti nurse, rather the daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador. Hill & Knowlton professionally coached her on how to give her testimony before Congress.

The public should know about these things as well as some of the basic methods of PR and news maniulation. The question is how to do it. Getting these four into high school history texts is out. Texas has banned Rosa Parks from its history textbooks. Banning or limiting the use of PR would result in a hopeless free speech fight.

The only possibility is for activists to become educators, speaking to adults at PTA, homeowners’ and renters’ meetings. Pulling a page out of Saul Allinsky’s playbook and make those in attendance part of the team. Some would help with the teaching. Others would host meetings or get involved with voter registration. Kids could play various roles.

Going to war. Invading other countries. Overthrowing democratically-elected governments. Union busting. We’re not talking trifles here. Doing nothing would be akin to giving up on democracy.

Steve Varalyay

Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Printeronce covered labor and healthcare issues for Random Lengths, a progressive biweekly serving communities in the Los Angeles Harbor area. More recently he has written short historical fiction. His “Prohibition in the Harbor” won the grand prize in Easy Reader’s 2011 Writing Competition. He has a BA in Spanish and Minor in Labor Studies from California State University Dominguez Hills and lives in Torrance.

Support our work here.


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

Millennials & the Revolution of Politics

Right now in the United States, Super Tuesday is just a couple of days away.  It’s pretty amazing that I know that.  I have never paid such close attention to American politics before.  I never cared that much; not until it came down to the actual Republican vs. Democrat.  In general we, your neighbours to the North, breathe more easily when it’s the latter.

But right now there’s a political revolution going on that has broad implications in both of our countries.  There’s a huge generational divide.  It’s the generation we call the Millennials.  They’re changing how everything works.  In current North American politics, both in the recent Canadian federal election and in the upcoming American Presidential election, there has been a visible, undeniable generational split in opinions at the polls, and it has made, and is making, a significant difference.  Millennials are the reason that the Conservative Harper regime in Canadian government was finally overthrown, and Millennials are changing the face of American politics even as you read this.  Nothing in national democratic politics is ever going to be the same again.

Why?  Is it that Millennials are creative and innovative?  Well, to some degree that’s true; the younger generation is almost always more flexible and more willing to try new things than the older generation.  Is it that they realize how fixed the system is and they are desperate for change?  Well, that’s partially true too.

But more than anything, I think it comes down to one simple thing: Boomers watch TV.  And Millennials don’t.

The Problem with Corporate Media

We in democratic capitalist societies labour under the delusion that the media is the Fifth Estate, which exists as an independent watchdog to inform us on the benevolence, and abuses, of those in power.  The media, we believe, reports on events in a way that delivers the news with forethought, expert consultation, and a fair, if not entirely unbiased, lens.  My parents still share this subconscious assumption.  But it’s not true.  It’s never been true.

Corporate media is, of course, interested in furthering the interests of things that benefit corporations.  In general, they support right wing policies because right wing governments support bigger corporate tax breaks, trickle-down economics, low wages, and lack of regulation.  It’s only common sense, really.  These things benefit any large corporation, and I don’t think there’s any denying that broadcast media is entirely ruled by large corporations.   What you may not know is just how large they are.

You would think that print media would be different; the last bastion of the independent journalist.  But again, you would be mistaken.  Almost every major newspaper in Canada is owned by two companies.  That’s right, just two.  They are Sun Media and Postmedia.  How big do you think a corporation has to be to own so many newspapers?

It didn’t used to be that way.  There was the CBC, and then there were mostly local private companies.  Until our broadcast media was partially deregulated in 2008, and again in 2011, by the Conservative government of the time.  Is it any wonder that the news seems to be favouring the right wing view more and more all the time?

Sometimes the bias is so blatant that it’s a suitable subject for ridicule.  But most of the time it is subtle; so subtle I know most people don’t notice it.  Watching coverage of the Bill C-51 protests here in Canada was most instructional for me, because I had just caught on to the tricks and so I really noticed them:

Two very different stories may be observed in the Vancouver Sun, which is a major corporate newspaper, and the Vancouver Observer, which is a somewhat respected but smaller and decidedly more left wing “alternative” media source.  Both papers are reporting on the exact same protest in the same city.  If you’d like to play along at home, I urge you to fire both of those links up in separate tabs and compare them as you read.

Our first clues as to the tack of the stories can be found in the headlines.  The editor of a paper is the one who chooses the headlines.  The Vancouver Sun headlines their story with “Vancouver protesters rally against Tories’ Bill C-51.”  Seems innocuous enough, right?  But let’s break it down a little.  First, limiting the story to Vancouver divorces it from the national movement in the minds of the readers.  Vancouver has a reputation for being a sort of “San Francisco of Canada,” and is regarded as a haven for what the right wing sees as “leftist nutbars.”  So this makes it sound like the protest is a local phenomenon.  Note, also, that the Sun is quick to call it “The Tories’ Bill.”  This demands polarization.  It makes it personal.  It suggests that anyone who might disagree with the bill is only taking exception to the then-unpopular Tories, rather than objecting to legislation which gives unsettling powers to the government. It trivializes it as “party politics.”  It’s a “nothing to see here” tactic.

In the meanwhile, the Vancouver Observer tells us that “Thousands protest Bill C-51 across Canada.”  We are meant to be alarmed.  Thousands? What is horrible enough to get “thousands” to protest?  And “across Canada?”  What could be causing such a sweeping concern?

Our next big clue is image.  The Observer has chosen an image that shows a vast sea of protesters, standing politely with their signs and listening to a speaker on a stage.  I am sure that they were trying to get as many people as possible in the shot to display how widespread the opposition to the bill is.

In the meantime, the Sun has chosen a much closer angle, so that you really have no idea how many people are at the event.  And they have also chosen a picture intended to make the protesters look as stupid as possible.  The big sign in the center of the image says, “Harper Darper,” which sounds like a child making fun of someone in the schoolyard.  If that weren’t bad enough, the most clearly-visible sign other than that one says, “Honk to defeat Happer!”  Obviously it’s a misprint, and the protester tried to correct it – you can see a black Sharpie line turning that first P into an R if you squint – but it’s difficult to see and obviously your first impression is meant to be “what a bunch of buffoons!”  You are supposed to dismiss them as “stupid left wing crazies.”

Now let’s break down the articles themselves.  Our first paragraphs set the stage nicely.  In the Sun we are told that “more than a thousand people” gathered to protest “Harper” in particular, and “the new anti-terror bill” by extension.  Okay, yes, there were more than a thousand people.  The Observer tells us that there were actually about a thousand more people than a thousand people, which is a total of two thousand.  So the Sun was telling the truth, but the implication minimizes things just a little.  Also, the Sun is letting us know that the protesters are protesting Harper because they don’t like him; not the proposed legislation because it’s objectionable.

In the Observer, our first paragraph tells us that about two thousand people “descended on the streets” to “express frustration with the federal government’s proposed anti-terror bill.”  So in this key sentence we are told a) there are a lot more people out there than the Sun was saying there were; b) they are frustrated with the federal government, not any party or person in particular; and c) that the bill is still a proposed bill, not something that is already law.

It seems like it’s a conspiracy.  But it really isn’t.  It’s the natural result of the corporate system of ownership; reporters making subtle changes to their pitched articles to make them palatable to their editors, who must then make them palatable to the company management, usually passing through several layers of bureaucratic stratification in between.  And ultimately, the paper is printed to please the boss, who likes things that benefit corporations just fine.

Most of Canada’s newspapers endorsed Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the last election despite plummeting popularity; the ones who didn’t supported mostly the Conservative Party with Harper’s resignation as a caveat.  People couldn’t understand it.  But Postmedia ordered all of their subsidiaries to endorse the Conservatives; which is actually a traditional owner’s prerogative.  In other words, every media company that has ever existed has a bias.  And they are expected to.

This is where publicly-owned media, run properly, can provide an alternative view and thus widen the lens we are given to look at the state of things; but even that has its problems.  Because the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a Crown Corporation, meaning that the Canadian government is the primary shareholder, there are limits to the powers of the CEO and the Board of Directors.  As a result, a significant faction within the CBC, angered by the Conservative appointments and the reduced budget, supported – almost downright campaigned for – the Liberal Party and our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  But we need to understand their bias as well; the Liberal Party promised all kinds of things to the CBC as part of their campaign platform, including a lot more funding.  Thus, even in Canada’s nominally non-partisan public media company, every time we heard about the New Democratic Party or its leader Tom Mulcair, it was to deride and discredit their campaign promises and to make Mulcair look as foolish as possible, with photos seemingly selected for the purpose.  And that was regardless of which mainstream media company was reporting on the election.

But even publicly-owned broadcasting is not safe.  The CBC, long regarded as a public resource with a decidedly left-wing approach (and it used to be) was gutted completely by Stephen Harper in his last couple of years as Prime Minister.  He cut its funding, fired most of its executives, and appointed a whole bunch of his Conservative cronies to significant positions.  Justin Trudeau’s attempt to fix some of this has been actively stymied by tactics from these appointees that look a lot like crazy Republican stunts to me.  (Incidentally, when a government changes hands, requests for appointees to step down like this are a normal, expected part of the system; which of course, the current CBC isn’t telling us.)

Things like this have already been done to the BBC several years ago and are now firmly entrenched.

It’s an interesting point because I see the American media doing the exact same thing to Senator Bernie Sanders that the Canadian media did to the New Democrats, for the exact same reason; corporations hate social democracy.  Social democracies limit corporate powers and increase wages.  Social democracies believe in what’s best for all of the people, not just a select few.  I think it’s a safe bet that the mainstream media will never show us an unbiased view of policies that might put more limits on corporations; which is why so many people seem to think that Mr. Sanders’ “socialist” policies are “unrealistic.”  Even my parents.  The funny thing about this is that most of Sanders’ platform is the way Canada did things, from the 60s right up to the Harper administration, and it worked just fine.

There’s another concern with corporate media.  The media makes a lot of money on political campaign ads, as politicians try to make their messages heard; and also on election coverage, as corporations backing particular parties or candidates sponsor programs that feature those candidates.  And the more political tension they create, the more money they make; which is probably why every political campaign is portrayed as a horse race, even when it’s not.

How the Internet is Transforming Politics

In the early days of media, there were newsletters and newspapers.  Media was a lot less centralized and thus, people read what they wanted to read.  Since there were a couple of dozen New York papers, you just read the one you preferred; or maybe a handful, if you were really well informed.  When it came to politics, you read the papers that supported your political view; for instance, if you were a socialist, you read the socialist papers.

Slowly, larger papers began buying up the smaller papers, and so your options of what to read, and thus the viewpoint you were shown, gradually diminished.  Why did the New York Times become so respected?  Because everybody read it.

We have seen how that sort of centralization reduces the scope of the information lens so that we only hear what the corporate media wants us to hear.  But that’s changing.  There are alternative sources of media emerging; blogs and journals like ours, for example.  And the reason is – you guessed it – the internet.

Right now, political blogging is in its early growing stages.  We are graduating from a few random commentors to semi-professional small blogs and YouTube channels.  And the Millennials, having realized that the food that they’re being fed is (un)liberally flavoured with Corporatist propaganda and always tastes the same, have started seeking out those alternate sources.

Or so it would seem.  The truth is actually simpler than that, if I might cast a pall of cynicism on this ray of hope with an intention of helping us to make use of it in the most efficient possible way.

Millennials don’t watch TV anymore.  They don’t read newspapers.  Between their computers and their cell phones they go online for everything; their information, their entertainment, their social outlets.

So the fact that they’re discovering the alternate media is a cosmic accident, really.  And the only reason why the alternate sources are doing so well is that we’ve been here longer.  Fortunately the large media corporations were initially more interested in fighting or discrediting internet media than they were in using it. But that’s changing too.

Before you dismiss this as a fad, it’s clear that this has changed the way Millennials think.  They are perhaps the most literate generation that has ever existed.  Because they surf the web they know things that previous generations do not.  Because of Google Translate they can talk to people in other countries even if they don’t understand a word of the language.  And thus, it has never been so easy to find like-minded individuals and organize along ideological lines as opposed to geography.

More than that, most Millennials have probably experienced a situation in which they were humiliated on social media for not fact-checking a link or a meme.  Whether this or something else is the reason, Millennials who are politically aware check their facts.  They look up the definition of “social democracy” on Wikipedia.  They Google any statistics they are offered.  They use Snopes to confirm or denounce rumours and scandals.  You can’t just give them the facts you want them to hear, cherry-picked for your convenience.  They will double check.

As a result, we are beginning to see huge ideological divides between generations and it’s starting to make a difference.  Why did Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party win the Canadian federal election?  Because two significant demographics supported him almost unilaterally; First Nations Canadians, and young voters.

Note that these are both traditionally underrepresented groups in the political landscape.  But this time they overcame their reluctance to engage with a system so obviously stacked against them and came to the polls.  This, despite deliberate changes in election laws, such as gerrymandering electoral ridings and requiring proper picture ID as well as a voter registration card to vote – a tactic almost never done in Canadian history and obviously disadvantaging the young and the poor.  And as a result, our First Nations and our youth changed the course of Canadian history.

We are seeing this in American politics as well.  Would Bernie Sanders be doing so well against the likes of former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton if it weren’t for the massive support he’s receiving from America’s youth?  Millennials hear Sanders using the language of the Occupy Movement and his call to fight the 1%, and they are protesting the system with their ballots.  It is even starting to affect demographics that were believed to be unassailable, such as creating a generational divide in the black vote.

Will this factor change the course of this American election?  It already has.  Even among the Republican voters, nobody expected Donald Trump to do as well as he has.  In a way he’s the right wing equivalent of Bernie Sanders; he sounds like a rebel against the system.  He’s just going about it in a way that openly reveals the fascist heart of Corporatism.

Either way, this is likely the last U.S. Presidential campaign that will be so strongly influenced by the mainstream media.  It’s a whole new world out here.

But the battle isn’t over yet.  The halcyon days of net neutrality are already behind us, and there are ways in which large corporations are manipulating the internet to their advantage.  Also, the way in which we access the internet and social media corrals us into echo chambers which entirely lose touch with anyone who doesn’t share our views.  I will address these issues in my next article.


*I have chosen to use the gender-inclusive singular “they” as my default general pronoun in this article.

The Strikebreakers

Maudland Bridge Station, Preston, 3rd March 1854

They came like sleepwalkers in nightcaps
mistaking the station for the Land of Nod.

A land of famine in their eyes. Blighted potatoes.
They held their children like bony sacks of spuds.

Alighting like ghosts they padded slipper-foot
onto the platform into our town,

the creak of the hold in their silent heels,
fingers of nothing in their out-stretched hands.

The rage we’d borne against the strikebreakers
fired by a winter of Cotton Lords’ unfairness

wizened like tubers on a rotten mound
before dark eyes and sallow faces.

Though we knew they’d take our jobs,
work for sure without the ten per cent

we dared not wake them from their dream,
shake them from their night-clothes:

their waking death.


This poem is set during the Great Preston Lock Out. On the 15th of October 1853 the Cotton Lords of 36 Preston firms locked the workers out of the mills in response to their demands for the restoration of the 10 per cent cut from their wages during the 1840’s recession.

The lock out took place through a long hard winter during which donations flowed in from across the country and were distributed by the Preston unions to support the hungry often starving dissidents. Their battle cry “ten per cent and no surrender!” was echoed in support.

Still the masters did not accede. In February 1854 they reopened the mills, attempting to force the suffering people back to work. The workers responded by picketing the mills and the lockout became a strike.

Emigrants Leave Ireland, engraving by Henry Doyle (1827–1893), from Mary Frances Cusack's Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868, Wikipedia Commons
Emigrants leave Ireland by Henry Doyle, Wikipedia Commons

The masters decided to import ‘knobstick’ workers from neighbouring towns such as Manchester and from Ireland. In one famous example Irish emigrants were intercepted at Fleetwood, fed at The Farmers’ Arms, then escorted back by union officials.

On the 3rd of March 1854 the strikers heard that a party of Irish strikebreakers would be arriving from Ulster via Fleetwood at Maudland Bridge Station. 2-3,000 people assembled outside. Seeing the strikebreakers they peaceably allowed them to be transferred to Hanover Street Mill.

P1140308 - Copy
Hanover Street Mill ( 2016)

Many were former inmates of the Belfast workhouse. The Preston Guardian describes them:

‘These people presented a most melancholy sight, nearly all were destitute of shoes and stockings and some were dressed in nightcaps. They included all ages, from the infant in arms to females advanced in years, altogether a wretched specimen of what Irish famine had reduced the peasantry of the Country to.’

My poem attempts to capture this scene.

Maudland Bridge Station closed to passengers in 1930 yet the track was used by goods trains until the 1990’s. The area is now the location of university buildings and student halls yet the train tracks leading into the abandoned Mile Tunnel and memories of the past remain.

P1140286 - Copy
Mile Tunnel from Maudland Bridge


David Hunt, A History of Preston, (Carnegie Publishing, 1992)
J. S. Leigh, Preston Cotton Martyrs, (Palatine Books, 2008)




Black birds come screeching through the skies

On winds of war, as waters rise.

And prophet’s eyes begin to gleam

Beneath their floating hair. This dream

Of smoke and fire shall end at last!

A whisper rises from the past –

Millennium – as pillars shake

Millennium – as gods awake

Millennium – as flowers bloom

In mouths of corpses, and the tomb

Springs open to reveal the Host

Arranged for battle, ghost by ghost,

With banners flapping, black and red.


Millennium – “We are the dead

Who rose with Spartacus and fell,

Who sang John Ball Has Rung Your Bell,

Who marched with pitchforks on Versailles,

And those who answered Boukman’s cry,

Who rode with Makhno in Ukraine,

And those who died defending Spain.

We are the dead of all the earth

Who died to bring this day to birth.

The dead who dreamed another world

Have come to you with flags unfurled.

The burning wheels and turning gears

Have come around. The end is near.

Our work remains undone. But you

(Millennium!) shall see it through.

So take your mental spear, and go!

Cast down all thrones. Let forests grow

Where burning mills once filled the sky

With smoke and flame. Let empires die,

Till none is slave and none is king.

Then heal. Then build. Then sing.”


– Christopher Scott Thompson

The first image shows peasant rebels marching into battle in 16th-century Germany. The second image shows the march on Versailles in 1789. Both are public domain.




Seasons of Humanity

By Lia Hunter

Children of Gods


Ancestral Celestial

Children of Gods
Sun and Earth
source of our abundance
blazing fecundity, alchemical, we
in their image

Grandparent stars going before
forging all we have and are
smiling on us from
what afterlife dimension
star gods burn their way to

Larger than one culture
older than our memory
together in the web of life
cycling in the seasons we spin up,
or down, in our collective energy

Nets that bind, release
renewal patterns ever dancing
breath of life so sacred
novas wild, death birthing,
in the dark, the shining spiral



We are Pagans. We have a healthy, whole worldview that doesn’t try to exclude or ignore death and darkness. We aren’t afraid of them. We know where they lead – we’ve been there. We’ve walked the paths where darknesses and deaths overtake you along the way, and that they are not only not the end (the path has no end, it’s a spiral), but they are necessary for growth and life. We don’t disown matter in favor of spirit, nor spirit in favor of matter. We know both are integral. We see both clearly, because we live in them, together, and don’t deny any part of the world we come from and live in. We don’t have a story we must make the world fit within, our stories reflect what is, and what always returns. Mythology extends our memory past the reach of history, and we know that these are not the same thing, and that both are important.

We are not alienated from our world. We feel at home in it. Our kin are here, and we belong, having been born of this place, and being suited to it. It’s not some staging area for a Great Sorting in which we’ll eventually be put on a train to our real home, which supposedly will have an absence of death and darkness. What kind of unnatural thing would that be?! It doesn’t sound sustainable.

The sun halts in its courses, but it moves back again. The moon wanes away, but waxes again. The stars burn and collapse and burst, but their gravity and star-dust make worlds and stars again.

We Pagans lack, or find ourselves healing from, the sickness that separates people from their world and from each other. We’ve awakened from the illusions of separateness, dominion, and patriarchy. We tap back into the indigenous memory of mythology and the preserving shrine of nature, which gives us the broad perspective and time-depth that is necessary for wisdom. Wisdom can’t be preserved in a book. Language isn’t big enough, alone, to hold it. Even poetry, which comes close, needs experience to translate and unlock the treasures it holds.

The sun halts in its courses, but it moves back again. Seasons come to their edge, and transform to the next again. Humanity falls down in its destructive Winter of Illusions, but reconnects with the reality of Nature’s spirit of community and thriving life… and heals again.

If we healers are to heal the sicknesses of our world, to help the season change, we’re going to need the long perspective to know where to effectively focus the short. We’re going to need to know who we are and what spot in history we are situated in, as well as what archetypes from mythology we are dealing with. We need to know biology before we can be doctors. We need to know nature to apply its medicine.

Let’s remember to step back, into the cosmos, and watch the dance, learn the steps, and choose our part in it. We aren’t just individuals, born in a geopolitical nation, and privy only to the history since our birth, as people in our civilization tend to think. We can and must expand that to humanity and the earth community… whether or not nations are formed or continued. We should be privy to how things may go as well as how they have gone before, and why.

It isn’t a hard study if you stay curious and just remember to take at least one step back for a longer view of the big picture whenever you consider something.

Humanity has been around so much longer than the couple of thousand years or less that Western civilization has brought with us in cultural memory. You can’t navigate well in a fog of forgetfulness, with only your immediate surroundings visible and only a portion of that understood. Let’s all learn the lay of the land and the times, and the ley of how they all connect. Let’s connect with each other to more powerfully heal the imbalances. Capitalism wants us separated and thinking we’re powerless. But its spell is breaking, as ours is rising. It’s time for the light to overtake the path again.

The sun halts in its courses, but it moves back again. Awake from illusion, learn, and teach again. Blessed Solstice again, and again, and again.

Never Shall Be Slaves II – To Crown It All

God and/or rebel? The Green Man, Norwich Cathedral. Source:

How many landowners are there in the UK? Go for it. Guess. A million? 20 million? 30 million?

How about one?

Okay, that’s a bit of a lie. And yet, it’s all too true.

Let me explain…

In my last post, I talked about slavery – the extent to which the British people first got chained to the forces of imperialism, and then took up those chains for use on everybody else. In this article, I’m going to talk about another key sinew in the body politic of Empire in Britain – land.

As it happens, land is more my professional area than slavery (thank goodness). I’m a PhD student currently, studying land management practices in the Broads; a vast wetland, strung along a bundle of rivers at the eastern edge of England. So land – who works it, who owns it, and what they think about it – is what I live and breathe right now. I’ve been up to my shins in river mud, watching the water course through a sluice I’ve helped mend. I’ve been chopping down hazel coppice so the stools will live another 20 years. I’ve pulled out more weeds in defence of crops than I can count. I’ve seen barn owls and bitterns and bearded reedlings. I’ve spoken with farmers, conservationists, and the knuckers that live in the lakes and streams in this part of the world. I’ve sat in an awful lot of meetings. It’s all regulated, of course. The physical and social acts undertaken to manage the land, all unfold in accordance with a slew of laws, bylaws and mandates – all dependent, at root, on the venerable sack of precedent that is UK Land Law. And this traces back to one book, one arrow, and a very bad man; Britain’s second colonial episode in recorded history: the Norman Conquest.

In the beginning: Folkland; Bookland

Long ago, before the Normans – a bunch of aristocratic hoodlums from the French Duchy of Normandy – invaded England after the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, land ownership was divided into two main kinds: folcland and bocland. Defined by ancient custom, folcland – literally “Folkland” – was the older type; a category that had once covered all the land in England. It was owned, under the law, by a single person on behalf of their entire kingroup. Ownership could be circulated within that kingroup freely; especially in the form of inheritance. Kin therefore had an inalienable claim to their folkland; a claim that could only be overruled by the king and the council of elders – the witanagemot – under special circumstances. Bocland, or Bookland appeared later; initially as a means of providing land for the Church after the Christianisation. As the church was outside of ordinary kin relations, it could not own folkland – as such, a new category of land ownership was needed. As such, the notion of “bookland” was created. In this form, land ownership was tied to the possession of a specific charter – the eponymous “book”. As the charter was granted in perpetuity, it could be given, sold, or circulated at will; kin had no prior claim, nor was could the government control how the land was disposed of.

The Heart of It: Domesday

Of course, this entire system of law was entirely abolished at the arrival of William the Conqueror. After defeating the English army and slaying King Harold Godwinsson at Hastings – with that dread arrow – the story wasn’t over. Uprisings happened all over the country for decades afterwards, as the English people attempted to drive out the invaders. William and his nobles responded by committing atrocities of the highest order.

The worst of these – the Harrying of the North – was a systematic campaign to devastate the entire North of England, after an initially successful campaign there by the last remaining member of the Wessex Dynasty, the former kings of England. Described by some modern historians as genocide, William’s armies murdered and sacked their way across the land from the Humber to Carlise – destroying livestock, crops, tools, and food along with weapons and armour. 100,000 people died of starvation. Contemporary chronicler Orderic Vitalis said “I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him.”

After violently subduing the country, William declared that its inhabitants were all traitors for supporting Harold’s claim to the throne, rather than his own. He used this as a pretext to nullify all existing land tenure in England, bringing all land under his sole ownership – that of the Crown. Everyone who owned land, now owned it by his leave alone. Huge taxes were raised, through which the English financed their own subjugation at the hands of William’s mercenaries. Much of England, and all the choice jobs, were parcelled up amongst William’s favourite knights and the clergy he had brought with him from Normandy. They, in turn, gave land to those they trusted amongst their retinue; the English population was largely reduced to villeinage, and the English feudal system was born.

Resistance to this continued for decades afterwards; a guerrilla campaign carried out by those the Normans called (in Latin) the sylvatici – the men of the woods. Heroes still dimly remembered, like Hereward the Wake of the Cambridgeshire Fens, wrestled with the Norman Yoke for decades, harrying supply chains and attacking tax collectors. Writer and historian Paul Kingsnorth has memoralised these freedom fighters in his dark and brooding novel The Wake, and has suggested elsewhere that they are the true inspiration for the Green Men that bedeck our great Norman Churches.

To maximise the amount of revenue he and his supporters could extract from their new territories, William commissioned the creation of the Domesday Book – a huge ledger containing detailed information about who owned Britain – both before and after the conquest – and what their estates produced. Throughout this formative text of British landscape history, what shines through is the complete transfer of land from English to Norman hands. Domesday is indeed an apt name for such a testament to ruthless exploitation.

Ending: The Crown Takes It All

Although English land law has evolved considerably since feudal times, it nonetheless still operates from the same basic premiss – that all land is owned by the Crown, in trust for the people. When you buy land in Britain, you don’t buy the land itself – you buy the “freehold” – meaning you have the right to hold it, freely, in perpetuity. This is called an “estate in land”. This may seem like mere semantics, but it has very real consequences – you do not, for example, own everything about your land: the mineral rights, for example, remain the property of the state, and the estate comes with certain duties, such as that you are liable to pay taxation. This has utterly transformed the campaign against fracking in the UK, for example – whereas Americans are able to refuse sale of the mineral rights under their properties, and thus effectively “lock the gate” individually; in Britain, this is much harder – because the mineral rights to oil and gas are owned by the government, and so we can only prevent drilling through denying planning permission or pushing for a nationwide ban. Kingsnorth points out that the Normans also imposed primogeniture on England – the idea that the first son inherits all the land – whereas previously, land had been parcelled up amongst the children of the owner. As one of my aristocratic informants explained to me when I visited his Norfolk estate; this more than anything else has allowed the vast English estates to endure down the years – under Anglo-Saxon land law, they would have been almost certainly broken up, and circulated amongst the wider population along kinship lines.

The Moral of the Story

There has been significant debate about the true character of folkland amongst historians. The initial view, taken by John Allen in 1830, was the somewhat romantic notion that folkland was owned in common by the everyone in the kinship group; a view that has been criticised subsequently as not being consistent with the actual documentation from the time. Certainly, folkland was no model of egalitarian land ownership – the power of the king and the witanagemot saw to that.

But irrespective of whether the land was owned in common by all the people, or in trust by a local leader, we can say with some confidence that the major difference between folkland and bookland is that they are presuppose different sorts of relationship between people and the land. Folkland says that they are inalienable – the land is intimately and completely tied to the people who live upon it; a sacred trust, that can only be broken by the equally potent word of the king.

With folkland, the land and the people cannot be separated. Bookland, however, introduces a second step – it transforms an unmediated relationship between people and land, into a mediated one. Land is no longer an extension of kin relations; it is a commodity – in the form of a royal charter – that can be bought, sold, and disposed of at will. This represents a fundamental shift in how people were relating to the landscape; the land no longer held them, they held land. With this in mind – though undeniably an intensely traumatic and violent colonial event – the Norman Conquest represents merely an extreme form of an alienation that was already ongoing in Anglo-Saxon society. The Norman feudal system, and the system of English land law based upon it, in a way integrates the worst aspects of both folkland and bookland – like bookland, it fetishises the land into charter; like folkland, it ensures a powerful royal prerogative.

This very much echoes the nature of land ownership in Britain today. Kevin Cahill, in his book Who owns Britain?, points out that two thirds of Britain’s 60 million acres are owned by 0.36% of the British population. Although it would be wrong to claim that all of these landowners do not respect the land they hold, land under this regime is nevertheless first and foremost an asset: a source of revenue to be circulated in a market. Although some people do still feel a long-term, familial connection to particular tracts of land – such as certain old, aristocratic families – it is striking that what was once something connected with entire kin groups is now only expressed by an intensely privileged minority of nuclear families, who are increasingly the exception, rather than the rule. These days, most land in Britain is owned by large institutions or absentee landowners, who simply use the landscape as a source of revenue, employing land agents and contractors to manage vast estates for maximum profit – a state of affairs unnoticed by most British people, even in rural areas. For most Britons, the inalienability of folkland is history.

It is, perhaps, unimaginable to see any other way of doing things in the Britain of today, a Britain that recently voted for a right-wing majority in the House of Commons. But by looking beyond the Crown, to a time when the land and the folk were one, we have a glimpse of a completely different set of relationships, where the very soil upon which we walked, was our eorþan modor (1).

(1) Anglo-Saxon, “Mother of Earth / Earthen Mother”, Lacnunga, Aecerbot.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

 You can still purchase our entire digital catalogue for $20 US until 1 June.

Never Shall Be Slaves – I

By Jonathan Woolley


“Rule Britannia/Britannia rules the Waves
Britons never never never shall be slaves.”

These are words I grew up with. To be sung at sporting events and public celebrations, while waving a little plastic Union Jack and being carried along with the crowd. Even if you haven’t come across them before, you will have heard the tune: it immediately calls to mind the maritime, stubborn spirit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We will not be conquered – we fought off the Germans, twice! We stand for freedom. We invented democracy. Did you know we banned slavery before anyone else?

It’s catchy, this sort of thing. It rings out in the public sphere, and fades till it becomes a hum, till it becomes part of the white noise that lingers in the imagination even when all else is silent. Britons never shall be slaves. If our nation were one of the Seven Kingdoms, and the House of Windsor were our liege-lords, these would be their words. You don’t need to know much about blowing gales(1) to know the power that such songs command.

I can remember, when I was small, I just took all this on board. I’d see my mother proudly singing along while watching the Last Night of the Proms. Afterwards, she explained to me why they were important. We Brits have a proud naval tradition, she said, and that protects us from our enemies.

Rule Britannia! was written in 1740 by a Scottish poet called James Thomson. It was part of a production about Alfred the Great – the original patron of the English navy – written to mirror a spate of recent victories scored by the British navy against the Spaniards. It struck a chord, so to speak, and rapidly entered into the popular songbook. Nowadays, nobody really remembers the full lyrics: it’s just the short refrain above that is sung, with great ardour, over and over and over.

It is true, of course, that British sea power has been instrumental in protecting Britain and Northern Ireland from foreign invasion. From the sinking of the Spanish Armada onwards, there has been a sort of popular superstition amongst the British people that the seas and skies themselves defend our island – a tsunami of the occident – with our navy standing guard in their stead. Our seas are to us what Russian winters are to Moscow. Our navy made Operation Sea Lion a pipe dream, unless our air force was removed first.

But the last bit of the words – the indefinite proclamation, never shall be slaves – is a darker matter. Because it isn’t true. Not even a bit of it.

Britons have been – and still are – frequently enslaved. Whether we’re talking about entire Cornish villages being carted off by pirates from the Barbary Coast, or modern-day debt slaves in quiet suburban streets, the ardent claim made by Rule Britannia! rings rather hollow. And the history of the British Empire’s relationship to slavery is anything but noble. I suppose it could be read as aspirational; that slavery is inimicable with British values, even if the reality it somewhat different.

But beyond this, there is another story to be told. A sad one, with a horrible ending.

“Briton” – as a demonym – has deep roots. It stretches back far into the past, to the Priteni, or the People of the Forms (2) – the indigenous inhabitants of the British Isles in the Iron Age. I use the term “indigenous” advisedly, because the Priteni were progressively colonised by a bellicose foreign Empire: that of Ancient Rome. And a big, and often neglected part of that history, is slavery. Slaves were routinely exported from Britain, being listed by Strabo amongst other goods that were traded from there. Like many minor powers on the fringes of imperial players, it seems, the Ancient British chiefdoms were driven to enslave one another as a way of making money. Despite this, Cicero informs us that Britons would “not fetch fancy prices” in Roman slave markets, because they were too lazy. Cicero also observed in a letter to a friend that, after the conquest,

“It’s also become clear that there isn’t an ounce of silver in the island [Britain] nor any prospect of booty except slaves.”

But that was incentive enough for Rome. Slaves were the hydrocarbons of their day – their expropriated labour the primary energy source in Roman agriculture, industry, and domestic life. And just like our present-day Empires, Rome needed a constant supply of energy to keep itself going.

Historians like Tacitus open a window on what the invasion and conquest of Britain would have meant for the indigenous population: if you resisted, thousands of your people would be slain in battle, with the rest being taken into slavery. If you did not, you would be forced to pay tribute to Rome, and would be utterly subject to Roman laws. Your body and person would be free, but your spirit, wealth and society would be forever subject to the Pax Romana.

Within the narrative of conventional British patriotism, this was no bad thing. This was not enslavement, this was progress. Rome brought civilisation – literacy, underfloor heating, professionalised crafts, olive oil, wine, and – eventually – Christianity. The Roman armies protected the Iron Age tribes from one another; pacifying them. In this imagining, the ancient Druids – the spiritual ancestors of modern Druidry – were superstitious, murderous zealots; justifiably massacred on the Isle of Angelsey. History is written by the victors, of course; as such, it is often so much blood libel.

The Britons, of course, never threw off the Roman yoke. They never again were the Priteni – the People of the Forms. Many shaved their faces, put away their ink, and replaced their roundhouses with villas, their trousers for togas. Their wild and mysterious gods were weighted down with stone temples, then forgotten entirely when the Christ came. And Rome did bring peace, and opportunities for trade. The population grew, and lifespans increased. Winston Churchill claimed

“For nearly 300 years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have ever had.”

As Churchill was an ardent imperialist, such a reading is unsurprising. For as with all Empires, the peace and properity of late-Roman Britain was bought and paid for with tens of thousands of lives that were taken in war, or swallowed by the slave trade, then promptly ended in the lead mines, galleys and plantations of Gaul, Spain, and Italy.

But the Pax was not to last in Britain. After 300 years, the Roman Army retreated to defend Gaul, leaving Britain defenseless and – crucially – without a source of currency. Deprived of military wages, and so no longer able to trade, the now highly specialised British economy collapsed. Whereas before ordinary people knew how to support themselves – making their own utensils, growing their own food, and building their own houses – within the Empire, they had access to specialist craftsmen who could provide all these goods. Once the money supply was cut off however, people could neither buy, nor make, nor grow the commodities they needed. The population crashed, with hundreds of thousands of people starving or dying of disease and exposure, simply because the Imperial economic system upon which they relied had suddenly spat them out, and they no longer knew how to cope without it. Much like the Western Australian Government currently; the Romans stayed long enough for everyone to become reliant upon them, before pulling out and leaving the population to fend for themselves. As Professor Ronald Hutton recently stated in a talk at a Lugnasadh celebration: “The paradise of late Roman Britain became a nightmare.”

The Roman Occupation was a time when Britons were – both collectively and personally – slaves. We were violently chained to a grand imperial machine, exploited, then rendered utterly dependent upon that machine for very our survival. True, that experience was varied – some were formally enslaved, others were free citizens of the Empire. But our liberty was utterly destroyed. So much so, that Rome hadn’t just stolen the sons, daughters, grain, gold, and sovereignty of Britain – it had stolen and corrupted its very soul. No longer did the Britons – as the warchief Calcagus once had, in Tacitus’ imagining – long for freedom from the oppression of vicious empires. The trauma of our abandonment scarred that sentiment, so over generations it would be perverted into a desire to become a new Rome ourselves. Britons never shall be slaves. So we shall make slaves of all others.

It’s over a thousand years later now, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. The British people are no longer a collection of tribes preparing to fight for their lives, insulted as “barbarians”, and soon to be broken into death and slavery. We are the Romans now. Or, at least, we were. For a time. But our Empire fell, as Empires always do, and everyone who fell under Britannia’s long shadow has been left to pick up the pieces.

We Pagans look to our ancestors for comfort, support, protection, and advice. The Gods can be fickle, but our ancestors – as our kin – can be trusted before all others to look out for us and to teach us true lessons. This story from the past of the British people is pretty baleful knowledge. It isn’t a happy story of triumph, of a Sceptered Isle safe from slavery. It is a story, first and foremost, of the ancestral Britons’ total defeat – their subjection, and eventual decimation. Some died early, some died later, but the overriding theme is the total loss of sovereignty. What’s more, this didn’t just happen once in Britain’s early history, but several times in the various successor nations of Britain – from the Norman Conquest, to the Highland Clearances.

Some people respond to this realisation by creating a kind of victimhood narrative; in place of patriotic bluster, they nurse xenophobia – describing present-day immigration, often by people of colour, as an “invasion”; or trying to conflate the experience of present-day white people with present-day indigenous communities, who still live under a different sort of Pax. But to respond in this way is both foolish, and immoral. Foolish because it ignores the intervening history, and immoral because it justifies the continued persecution of indigenous peoples, and migrants.

These instances of colonalism in Britain’s past foreshadowed the creation of the British Empire centuries later. Rome set a bloody precedent across Europe; its lost golden age driving the ambition of generations of latter day Caesars. The people such conquering visions displaced often ended up in non-Western countries, replicated the abuses they had suffered on indigenous populations. It isn’t so strange that peoples when utterly conquered should themselves then seek to conquer; and sing songs about their own liberty. Most bullies are themselves subjected to abuse, and cover their weakness with ostenstatious displays of strength. But to understand this should never serve to justify or excuse bullying behaviour. The fact that Britain was once colonised in the past, can never be used to excuse present-day colonialism or racism. Instead, it should encourage us to do the opposite.

The irony is that both patriotic and victimhood narratives commit the same error – dishonouring and forgetting our ancestors’ struggle against the Roman oppressor. Putting Rome on a pedestal exemplifying a lost Golden Age, ignores the suffering of those who originally fought against her. And pretending that this idolising of Rome hasn’t happened in our more recent past, merely enables us to ignore those who suffer now. As Pagans, it is our duty and privilege to remember this past, to be inspired by it to show solidarity and support to those oppressed in the modern day, and to oppose Empire in the present, in memory of all our beloved dead who fell beneath its jack-booted oppression. Anything less is not only morally wrong, but leaves us chained to the ghosts of our once-conquerors. We must break those chains. Then, and only then, will the claim that there never shall be slaves ring true.

(1) Blowing a gale – The English word “gale”, referring to a strong wind, comes from the Middle English word galen, which means to sing, scream, cry, or practice enchantment. As such, when Asatruar sing galdr, we English might be said to blow gales.

(2) This etymology is believed to be a Gaulish description of British people, reflecting their tendency to tattoo themselves with blue pigment.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

 Support our work by buying our books & stickers here.