“[W]hite supremacy exists not external to the class, but as a perversion of its own interests.”
From Shane Burley
Based on a speech delivered at The Potter’s House in Washington D.C. on June 19th, 2017.
The days that followed Donald Trump’s unlikely election were a red-carpet moment for Twitter nationalists.
Richard Spencer made his fame in the wake of Trump’s run, as the Alt Right rose in public recognition as the new leadership for a fascist movement made visible. Spencer was the President of the National Policy Institute; a white nationalist think tank that built up an intellectual underpinning to a self-conscious fascist movement. It knew what it was, and it didn’t lie.
He had been holding posh conferences in the heart of Washington D.C. for years, and he planned his November 2016 conference just after the election. It was going to be a celebration or a recommital to accelerationism, whatever worked. In front of a crowd of suits and MAGA hats Spencer berated the press and gave a raucous speech, going fully explicit with the language with which he saw his movement.
“To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer, and a conqueror. We build, we produce, we go upward. And we recognize the central lie of American race relations. We don’t exploit other groups. We don’t gain anything from their presence. They need us, and not the other way around. Whiteness, or rather identity, is being forced on the deracinated, consumerist “last man” that is European America. No one is going to be permitted to escape this process. Great historical changes are imminent when people are forced into a binary choice, fight or flee, join or die, resist or cuck. That is the position of white people right now.”
That speech finished with an explosion from the crowd when Spencer yelled “Hail Trump! Hail Our People! Hail Victory.” The Roman Salutes that dotted the audience made sense, and the liberal media loved it.
One year later, at the November 2017 NPI conference, things had changed. The infighting in the Alt Right began almost immediately, with the revolutionary white nationalists separating from the Trump Republicans. Antifascist mass actions began to disrupt any functioning event the Alt Right had, from Spencer’s campus appearances to Identity Evropa’s brief attempts at anti-immigrant rallies. Then there was Charlottesville, a window into the reality of what the white nationalist movement is capable of, and the mass media platform denial that came as a result. Social media, podcast hosting, YouTube, and almost all venues for their expression were halted; their message, and money, began to flounder in the wake.
This year, they were no longer allowed the Ronald Reagan building in D.C.’s City Center, but instead had to rent an unheated barn in rural Pennsylvania. They could not secure another venue, no one would rent to them: it simply wasn’t worth it. During the event Spencer did an interview with author Angela Nagle for a documentary on the Alt Right, discussing the state of their movement and Spencer’s vision for a great white empire.
When Nagle asked what he would do with the American whites who did not want the vision he promised, he had a binary choice. “Then we will force them to be free.”
Fascism is not just a system of obtuse and indecipherable totalitarianism. It is not simply the decisive rule from the top. It is populist: meaning, in a sense, it is popular. It is a movement that has to be rooted in the people. Fascism was not popular in an era before mass politics, when aristocratic elites ruled by decry without the charade of mass democracy. Fascism rises and rules by the mass participation of segments of the working class, a point which many have tried to ignore. It is the flaws in democracy it hopes to exploit, to expose the lies of extra-judicial violence and control that allow the system to continue.
As a revolutionary movement which seeks to undermine some of the basic assumptions of Western liberalism, fascism rises from the same conditions that the radical left does: economic strife, dehumanizing living conditions, racial conflict, state repression, and the range of violence marked by modern capitalist society. This creates the turmoil, a revolutionary spirit that can tip over into a number of directions. The rage of the marginalized classes is always sincere and valid, yet its purity guarantees nothing about outcomes.
One element that can pivot and distort class rebellion is the meager benefits that a privileged class of workers have. This is to say, the more white, male, or otherwise marginally-benefited workers have, the more advantages they see above their counterparts. A reactionary privileged class, desperate to hold on to those privileges in a world of uncertainty and competition, have the longest tradition of patented self-destruction. The inability of white workers to see the benefits of anti-racist solidarity, the strength that comes from class unity only possible through a revolutionary refusal of white supremacy, has been the bargain made for decades in an attempt to grasp at that privilege.
This choice has been the Achilles Heel of the worker’s movement, and largely all left mass movements, and enacts arson on liberation. The push in the labor movement to bait out immigrants, including demonizing immigrant labor, was a bid to raise wages for domestic workers. However, it ignored the fact that those meager wage gains were nothing compared to what could have been achieved if a true internationalism was embedded. The benefits of male social caste came at the cost of crushing patriarchy, the kind of rigid gender roles that have cost men the ability to hold relationships and live with themselves as they are. The exchange has been made, and for pennies now they lost thousands.
The mass politics of fascism is built on the white working class, it cannot exist without it. They are what gives it strength, people, anger. They are the enforcers, even the vanguards, even if they are not the beneficiaries. This reality has to be confronted: white supremacy exists not external to the class, but as a perversion of its own interests. But whose fault is it? As the left recedes into urban college campuses, internalize jargon, and failed liberal movements, where is the white working class? Is it organizing?
No one needs to tell us to organize, to survive. We do it every day, and we do it without the organized left. There is no reason to believe, however, that this is always in a direction we could celebrate, or even accept. The old IWW slogan of “if you aren’t talking to your co-worker, someone else is” with the silhouette of a Klansman rings true, and the anger of the white worker class has nowhere to go but down. Their energy, built on de-industrialization, falling real wages, and the true reality of working life rises; it has been effectively turned upon itself and on immigrants, women, queers, and people of color.
This is not eternal, it has not always been this way. While the shift has taken place, the left has always been there, a step away to mock, criticize, and remain insular, losing popularity as it loses the class.
This is a call to engage all members of the working class in fundamental change, but it is not a declaration to ignore the reality of violent white supremacy coming from people with similar paychecks to our own. We have to prioritize defense in times of repression and supremacist insurrection, including building networks of community protection against white nationalist attacks and the growing infrastructure of genocide in the state. While white workers have not largely sided with movements like the project to Abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcment (ICE) system, we push ahead without apology.
Regardless, white workers benefit from a deeply revolutionary antiracist movement, one that drives out divisions in the working class. Such a movement can do so only by uprooting actual inequality and destroying racism, both interpersonal and institutional. When white workers give up privilege by undoing the system of institutionalized white supremacy, they will get solidarity in return. This provides real power, not just the illusion of freedom so many cling to.
A movement like that can destroy all borders, wages, bosses, and states. And to do that we need everyone together, with foundations that were built consciously. A working class movement does not abandon the work at road blocks, or offense, or even trauma; instead, it sees the reclamation of the class as inherent to a revolutionary process. This doesn’t stop the work: there are two projects ahead, revolution against the top and the rebuilding of the class. This is a permanent work in progress, a permanent revolution.
This doesn’t mean every white worker will read your pamphlet, hear your speech, and join your movement. And why would they? Organizing rests on more than that: the legitimacy of shared class identification and matching of idealism with material conditions. It won’t work universally, and the “false consciousness,” or even parallel consciousness, lingers in huge swaths of people whose mythology of self is cemented in the whiteness offered as a consolation prize. That doesn’t matter, though: they benefit from the destruction of whiteness just the same.
So that means going forward. And if they tell you they don’t want it, then we will give them a binary choice. We will force them to be free.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How We Stop It (Forthcoming 2017, AK Press). His work has been featured in places like In These Times, ThinkProgress, Roar Magazine, Labor Notes, Make/Shift, Upping the Ante, and Waging Nonviolence. He can be found at ShaneBurley.net, and on Twitter @Shane_Burley1
When my partner and I walk down the sidewalk, we know people will sometimes shout that we’re “fuckin’ dykes.” When a straight couple goes out in public, they know they won’t get called “fuckin’ breeders” – they have that privilege.
Mainline social justice acknowledges that. It doesn’t pretend that straight and lesbian couples get treated equally, and it condemns the position of privilege enjoyed by heterosexuals relative to LGBT people. However, recognizing the need to end something is only half of a political position – you also need a way to make that change happen.
Social justice promises just that. Its strategy against not just straight privilege, but privilege in general has two prongs: anti-discrimination legislation on the one hand, and individuals changing their conduct on the other. People need to own up to their privilege; then, they must relinquish it.
Now, that implies more than it says. This analysis begins with the experiences of individuals: this couple faces street harassment, that one doesn’t. Then, it generalizes those experiences to larger social groups (Black people, men, bisexuals, and so on). However, it never lets go of its initial individualistic assumptions – the experiences of a group are the experiences believed to be shared by its members.
From there, “opting out” follows logically. Is oppression about individuals being treated unequally because of their demographic position? If so, anti-oppression means working towards equal treatment. Is privilege is the sum of many individual acts of oppression (stacked, like the hierarchy of needs, from microaggressions all the way up to genocide)? Then ending those acts ends privilege. Some can be outlawed (hate violence, for instance). For others, though, you have to convince people to change their behavior. You couldn’t feasibly have a law against not taking women’s opinions seriously, for instance.
So, those with privilege must give it up. Not making use of it seems a reasonable starting point. The article quoted above, for instance, gives as an example not attending a conference that refuses to accommodate wheelchair users. You “opt out” of the benefits, and privilege weakens. To stop privilege, stop participating in it.
In practice, though, that doesn’t work.
But doesn’t fewer people taking advantage of privilege mean fewer people reinforcing it? Even if “opting out” isn’t sufficient by itself, isn’t it a necessary tool?
On the ground, “opting out” fails for two reasons:
“Opting out” is undesirable. When anti-oppression types say “privilege,” what concrete things are they talking about? Sometimes, they mean getting away with things no one should do – committing sexual assault with impunity, for instance. At least as often, though, they mean less-privileged people not getting to do neutral or positive things that the privileged take for granted – not acts of violence, but things that everyone should be able to do. My partner and I risk homophobic harassment when we go outside. Straight couples don’t. Should they “opt out” of leaving the house? After all, they can do so without being bothered by homophobes – that’s privilege. “Opting out” would mean never stepping out of their front door.
“Opting out” is impossible. My partner and I don’t choose to be harassed. Straight people don’t choose not to be. When some people get treated better than others, is it because they somehow control how strangers behave towards them? Should a straight couple say to everyone who walks by, “I know we’re heterosexual, but please treat us no differently than you’d treat lesbians”? If they did, would a homophobe answer, “Oh, happy to oblige! You damn dykes”? If individuals could just will these structures out of their lives (as “opting out” implies), this whole system would have died a long time ago. But that’s not how it works. The social order precedes and transcends the individuals within it.
But if “opting out” is impossible, why does the idea persist?
Well, social justice’s individualism allows for no other conclusion. If privilege boils down to individual actions and individual experiences, then individual choices must be both the problem and the answer. Sure, social justice pays lip service to “structural issues” and “systemic oppression.” But the nitty-gritty of what it means by that always falls back on individual complicity. How “systemic” can a critique be when it doesn’t acknowledge that social organization is more than the sum of the individuals inside it? If “structural” oppression just means that every member of a better-off group is individually complicit in their privilege, doesn’t that reduce oppression to “bad apples?” The bad apples may number in the tens or hundreds of millions, but the essence is still there – the problem is rotten people making rotten choices. It’s still about each person’s individual moral failure. However, there is no mechanism by which you can stop being complicit. So, for social justice, there is no solution. There’s only condemnation without end.
Luckily, though, this framework doesn’t line up with reality. Oppression isn’t the sum of millions of immoral decisions. Liberation is possible. But, it takes something that social justice hates even more than privilege.
Only when men see our work as work-our love as work-and most important our determination to refuse both, will they change their attitude towards us. When hundreds and thousands of women are in the streets saying that endless cleaning, being always emotionally available, fucking at command for fear of losing our jobs is hard, hated work which wastes our lives, then they will be scared and feel undermined as men.
But this is the best thing that can happen from their own point of view, because by exposing the way capital has kept us divided (capital has disciplined them through us and us through them-each other, against each other), we – their crutches, their slaves, their chains – open the process of their liberation.
Privilege leads to unequal treatment, but that’s not where it comes from.
Capitalism involves more than fast-food chains and stock exchanges. It’s an all-encompassing division of labor. Every single task through which humanity continues to exist gets parceled out to one group or another. That’s the material basis of social categories that, at first glance, look either natural or merely cultural.
Social justice will never realize that. Why should it? The activist subculture is mostly middle-class, not working-class. So, it reflects middle-class ideas and middle-class interests.
Do middle-class and ruling-class men and whites have a long-term stake in abolishing their own privilege? No – it gives them an unambiguous competitive advantage in the professions, management, and business. Why else do middle-class people from less-privileged demographics frame their politics in terms of unjust disparities and ethical imperatives? Without a shared material stake in ending privilege, moral self-sacrifice is all that’s left.
Middle-class and ruling-class reformers, though, find themselves in a contradictory position. On the one hand, lacking privilege makes their lives tangibly worse. But on the other, their class position depends on the continued existence of privilege, because the capitalist division of labor depends on it and they depend on capitalism.
So, they end up with equally-contradictory politics. Social justice has no way out.
On more than one occasion, Black workers have forced the employer to open a new job area to them, only to run up against the rigid opposition of white workers.
White revolutionaries must understand, and help the masses of white workers to understand, that the interests of the entire working class can only be served by standing firmly with the Black workers in such cases.
Does that mean that privilege will never go away? If social justice can’t overcome oppression, what can?
Internal divisions notwithstanding, the working class as a whole carries out all of the tasks of human existence. Without workers, there is nothing. But, the working class doesn’t decide the way in which it does that labor. The ruling class of capitalists does – the investors, executives, and business owners who control the physical and social infrastructure through which all work happens (the “means of production“).
Capitalists dictate the social order and exploit the working class, accumulating wealth at workers’ expense. The working class has the ability to overthrow capitalism (since capitalists need workers, but workers don’t need capitalists). It also has an interest in doing so – replacing it with a system in which workers (paid and unpaid) control everything. Obviously, capitalists have good reason to oppose that. So, whenever workers try to collectively pursue their interests, the ruling class opposes them however it can. That ranges from shaping “common sense” to relying on state violence.
The division of labor within the working class both creates and relies on privilege. In doing so, it makes it harder for the working class to effectively struggle against its oppressors. Privileged workers are less likely to side with the rest of their class because, due to privilege, they’re comparatively better off. But, that’s only a short-term interest. In the long term, their interests are the same as other workers’.
So, there’s a material basis for workers to come together and organize against the ruling class – and when they do so, specifically fighting against privilege is ultimately good for them all, even if some are benefitting from privilege at the moment. But, to make that happen, working-class politics has to focus on the long-term goal of ending capitalism and exploitation. It needs the analysis that your privilege here and now is the enemy of your liberation in the future. In other words, if it sticks to “achievable” short-term reforms, it can’t effectively do that because it’s dropped the long-term aim. After all, you can’t focus on long-term interests if you don’t acknowledge them. Moderate socialism isn’t any more useful against privilege than social justice.
What can end privilege?
Individuals can’t “opt out” of privilege because privilege isn’t individual. It’s built into the class system itself. To get rid of it, get rid of class.
But social justice is scared of that conclusion. Its social base is upper-class and middle-class – they’re either at the top of the pyramid or close enough to imagine themselves getting there. They need the class system, but the class system needs privilege.
Fortunately, abolishing privilege doesn’t depend on them. The working class can do it. No one else can. So, if you really want to see the end of privilege, don’t listen to social justice. Build institutions of working-class power.
Back in the 70s, radical feminists had a saying:
There are no individual solutions to social problems.
Privilege is a social problem. You can’t “opt out” of it. So, stop looking for individual solutions.
From Judith O’Grady: “Rather than ‘correctness’ we have to cultivate ‘mindfulness'”.
Referencing the story of Goldilocks we, in my family, refer to the making of some kind of people into not-people by some other kind of people (poor people into not-people by rich people, drop-outs into not-people by university attendees, women into not-people by men) as “they are just bears”. The bears do not actually own their possessions and so Goldilocks can freely eat and break them.
The first step in hating someone is to declare them to be a bear. Once they are bears you can discredit their opinions and beliefs, take away their possessions and homeland, refuse them the right of consent and enslave or rape them, believe that they do not feel pain as you would in their position…….
Historically, in general the ‘people’ have been those in power and the ‘bears’ have been the powerless. In my lifetime (I am old but not yet history), the Evil Bear-makers (those who think of themselves as ‘people’) have been the Conservatives, the Men in Charge, the Old Guard, the Privileged. Let us call them ‘The Exclusionists’; their mantra is that they and they alone have the right to govern, to possess, to be wealthy because they have always been the ones who have done it in the past, they alone have the necessary qualifications and experience to do these things, and that those things cannot effectively be done by Bears. They exclude everyone but those exactly like themselves from power and ownership.
My political self came of age in the era of civil rights demonstrations in the American South. The people (older than myself but not much older) who marched and died for those rights can, I believe, be typified as ‘The Inclusionists’. Their mantra was that there was commonality between white, young-adult, college student Northerners and black, older, share-cropper farmer Southerners; that they were all just people who should be able to vote, to go to school together, to be included in the same legal system. Those beliefs were idealistic and without great success (largely leading to covert replacing overt) but correct—- those peoples do have commonality.
Fast-forward to present day. Unlike the civil rights activists, many of whom were inclusive of not only all the people demonstrating with them but also the antagonists, current activists often demonize the people who are on ‘the same side’ but with differing beliefs or actions or goals as well as their antagonists. This is a terrible skew all down the line because then the torch-y white supremacists are primarily, but not the only wrong-headed bears. Their primal nature must be growling and hitting because they are not people like the good, non-violent, black-inclusive allies. So that dialogue changes from ‘you are wrong in your beliefs’ to ‘you are bad bears and must be outed, punished, shamed’. Even more troublesome is the othering of the people on the same side of the line who differ in belief. ‘Those black-wearing, face-hiding protestors use violence. They are bears’.
The Black Bloc have thought it over and have decided to stand between the defenceless and the aggressive, while also messing with Power-Holders’ structures on the route. Perhaps you feel that torching cop cars doesn’t advance your agenda, but they may also feel that wearing cute pink vagina hats doesn’t advance theirs. But you can agree on the bits of agenda that you agree on and both groups can act to stop hate speech. Or you can have an endless and useless argument about correct action, correct wording, correct stance. Every moment you spend fighting over minute ideology or word usage some fucktard is yelling about hatred unopposed.
But in reality none of any people are bears. The argument that any people are bears is specious because they are all people, just like anyone. That argument not only others them but others you as well. The people on the perceived moral high ground believe that they would not do whatever the non-people are doing— burning cop cars or fomenting hate. But it’s not that simple. To use a less-loaded example; most first-world people don’t eat insects or grubs (except escargot, the outlier). But it’s just culture; if you grew up in a culture in which rotten-log grubs were prized and eaten at festivals they would be like those chocolate eggs filled with sugary goo that only are available at Easter. If you grew up in a culture where women are sexualized and demeaned it would make perfect sense that they would be paid less than men.
Unless (here’s the catch) for some unprecedented reason you thought about it really hard. Out of the blue, you say to yourself, “Why IS it bad and embarrassing to have Dandelions in your yard? I like Dandelions.” That seems easy but the splash-back comes with culture. The across-the-street neighbour comes over to lecture you about “infecting the neighbourhood with Dandelions and driving down the housing values” (true story, actually) and suddenly you’re not discussing yellow Spring flowers but as a short traditionally-raised woman you’re having to mouth back to an elderly man who (20+ years in the military) is dripping with privilege and the implied threat of violence. It’s a lot harder than you envisioned.
Here’s another example. Back when I was firming up my beliefs by argument, I so so often heard the ‘family’ stance. Now, I believe in meeting violence with violence and have for quite some time. Right up there with the Prime Law for humans, ‘Everybeing has Free Will’, is the Prime Law for countries, ‘Don’t March Down Other People’s Streets’. Freedom Fighters (or terrorists, depending which side the speaker is on) have my respect. But many of the conventional Liberals saw violence as marking one out as ‘bad’ (infected with Dandelions) and described themselves as ‘non-violent’. But with a caveat, “If someone threatened my FAMILY then no holds barred!” But if some Evangelical started yelling at their teen-aged daughter on the bus about her hubcap-sized Pentacle, wouldn’t they want someone to step up for her even though she isn’t THEIR daughter? Of course.
People like to define themselves as Warriors, even when their lives do not routinely include violent confrontation. They’re waiting for the definitive moment when they can stand up in confrontation to the Blond Burly Guy in a flash uniform that mis-uses Runes. Not only will that likely not happen but if it did they would suddenly find that risking your life for belief is quite a bit more difficult than they envisioned.
What does happen, over and over, is that they don’t make a small gesture when they could. They know that if they confront privileged people irl, those people will use their privilege against them. They don’t step up to the trash-talking men and call them out; they don’t even go and sit with the clearly uncomfortable young woman. They collect their lunch and sit somewhere else. But, yo! With LOOKS OF SCORN.
Bringing up one example, I don’t shop at Walmart. I buy a lot of things at second-hand stores, so the argument (which I have heard numberless times) that I am making a privileged person’s choice is actually bullshit. When I had small children (that time of life when you need larger clothes every week) I mended my children’s play clothes and belonged to a clothes-exchange group of mothers. I remember the day when my friend heaved a sigh and said, “I can’t buy non-slave labour underwear anywhere and I really would like new underpants; I’m going to have to make an exception.”
Or the time that I mentioned in discussion that all of my family picked up trash wherever they were. One of the impassioned young men in the group turned on me and said that I was having no effect on the global trash load by that ineffectual action. “So you just let the trash lie?” I countered. He didn’t see my point. He was waiting until the Ocean Warrior sailed up to his land-locked door with a personalized invitation to board and until then he wasn’t putting any trash in the pockets of his natty coat, tyvm.
On the one hand, we are all faced with small decisions time after time, day after day. We must train ourselves to see the tiny crux and sometimes make a non-cultural choice. We have to live in the moment and in that moment see what is really happening. Rather than ‘correctness’ we have to cultivate ‘mindfulness’. We must look at that bear and see a person. What if I had been exposed to that wrong-minded culture in my childhood? What if my friendship group all decided on an action that I was uncomfortable with?
What would work? Screaming out,
“You are a POS Bear!!”
No. Somehow both antagonists must perceive what Right Action is:
“I am not a bear, nor are you.”
Again falling back on the small example, I had a brother-in-law. His mother had ‘never worked’ (ie held a paying job) and when he married he decreed that his wife would not ‘work’ either. She could grow and preserve a large vegetable garden, she could mind in-home day care toddlers, she could manage a difficult budget, but she could no longer be an executive secretary. After having two sons (“I want them to be tough”) he had a daughter. Suddenly, the world changed:
she must learn self-defence, she must play with blocks, she could not have a pretend kitchen for Christmass, she must excel at school (“I don’t want her dependant on some man for income!”). Why? The best of all reasons, love. Suddenly women were no longer bears; they could want for themselves what he wanted (“If she doesn’t want to wear the frilly dress she doesn’t have to!”)
On the other hand, violence should be met with violence. If you incite violence towards a wrong-thinking POS, then you should expect violence to be offered to yourself. If you step up and deny the threat of violence by force of will you may find that the Gods favour Right Action. If a person can stop a tank by force of will than a person can stop another person. Of course that confrontation may go badly, the aftermath of Right Action may not be happy, but someone’s point of view may change as a result. And, gradually, change will infect a culture. Like Dandelions, which are now ubiquitous because my province has banned poison herbicides. Like drunk driving, which has now become a crime rather than a juvenile expression of high spirits.
On the gripping hand, I am not a follower of that guy who mandated that we should love our enemies. But, unless we are being stalked by a coyote pack (happened to my son— he went back into the house without finishing his end-of-day cigarette), our enemies aren’t not-people either. We have some commonality and, standing on that island of commonality, we can struggle to explicate our disagreement. Not only should we give out what we want back, but if our cause/belief/reality is actually right then it must be able to be elucidated without the screaming of epithets. Mere explanation must be enough to carry the point. When I had small children to enculturate I had a rule about fighting,
“No hitting. No hitting back.”
So I never had to listen to endless sobbing stories about justification; all play stopped and everyone went off to think it over.
How might you carry your point without screaming and throwing plastic action figures?
is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).
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From Sable Aradia.
Beyond Mere Witchcraft
“Oh, I used to study Wicca,” says the 22-year-old woman with a patronizing smile, “but I’ve gone beyond that now.”
“Have you?” I ask, arching my eyebrow while I sit at the fair table where I’m selling the witchcraft books I wrote.
Realizing she has made an error, she backtracks. “Oh, well, you know, I think it’s perfectly fine for some.” She is unaware of her derision, her dismissal. “But I find I get so much more in the path I’m following now. And I don’t need all those tools.” Her tone is smug. Her implication is clearly that I must be less enlightened than she is, because she thinks I do.
Of course she does. She’s left witchcraft for the New Age community. She’s 22 years old and offering classes on the sacred feminine, communicated with special miracle health food, yoni crystals, and retreats at her home temple space. All for a monthly subscription price. Naturally the stuff costs extra. I don’t know who, if anyone, is paying for it.
I offered a free class on the sacred feminine two years ago, built from material that was handed down to me from a woman who was my teacher. No one came.
The Law of Attraction and Social Class
I get it. Sure I do.
We must look archaic to a lot of people. Perhaps we even look a little bit ridiculous. Look at how much farther they’ve gotten than we have! We always seem to be grappling with some major moral issue. We’re always railing at the injustice of the world. Meanwhile, they just think happy thoughts all the time, and never indulge in negativity, and the Universe provides all they need through the Law of Attraction.
No one mentions that most of the women I know who are involved in the New Age movement have married rich husbands because they came from upper middle class backgrounds. And I find it interesting that the ones who didn’t — like the lovely 22 year old I have mentioned — have all the same struggles I do. They have bad relationships and personal struggles and, above all, financial problems.
What’s wrong, then? Perhaps their ability to think happy thoughts and believe in the Law of Attraction to protect them isn’t good enough?
I think they tell themselves that. I think they convince themselves every day that if they just believe a little harder, things will get better.
So they follow the latest “conscious living” fad (and believe me, they come in fads — in the time I owned my metaphysical store I saw the rise and fall of orgone generators, the healing power of water, Stones of the New Consciousness, the Flower of Life, colloidal silver, and zen wands, to name but a few). In many cases, they spend thousands of dollars, when I know for a fact that what it cost to make the item could be expressed in hundreds of pennies.
But every time they embrace the new trend, everyone around them reinforces their choice. They tell them how wonderful and enlightened they are, that they can open their consciousness to these new methods, which science is too self-absorbed to understand. They compliment one another’s cleverness in that they are able to see through the bullshit of the rest of humanity. They talk about how the coming New Age of consciousness (which will happen any day now! Like Y2K/the great planetary alignment/the end of the Mayan calendar/etc.) will change the world so that only the peaceful, conscious-living people will survive while everybody else goes to hell in a handbasket. And rather than ever acknowledging that the fad they spent so much money on didn’t seem to be as effective as they’d hoped, they just move on to the next one, maintaining their positivity.
In this world, there’s no place for discernment, or doubt, or even calling out abuse. It’s all about plastic smiles and appearances over reality.
You’re Special, Just Like Everyone Else
It’s only natural for people to want to feel special. People want to hear that if their lives are good, it’s because they deserve it. Our ego loves to hear how wonderful it is.
We need our egos to survive. These are the constructs that give us our sense of self, and without them, we become hiveminds and doormats. Many psychological disorders — I would say possibly even PTSD, as someone who suffers from it — is all about crippling damage to our egos.
So the ego is the most greedy, self-centered creature on earth. It doesn’t ever want to hear anything that takes away from its central position in the Universe, and it never, ever wants to be questioned.
In the New Age movement, and indeed, in some poisoned halls of Paganism, it never has to be. People are told that they’re weird because they’re indigo children, or they are crazy because the gods are speaking specifically to them as Their Chosen Ones. There’s no room for discernment because there’s no place for judgment. After all, to have judgment is to be judgmental, and everyone has their own special truth to share with the world.
And I believe that, I do! But sometimes, people are weird because they’re suffering from undiagnosed PTSD or bipolar disorder or autism, and sometimes people are crazy because they’re having a psychotic break due to mood disorders, malnutrition, heavy metal poisoning or schizophrenia, and they need treatment and maybe medication.
A dear friend in the New Age community, one who does not fall for the fads, one who believes in authenticity and is generally authentic in her own life, believed that her newly acquired inability to digest meat was a result of a newly raised vibration; when it turned out to be, in fact, a parasite acquired from tainted water that did lasting damage to her digestive tract, since she ignored it for quite some time.
Questioning and discernment are important.
Witchcraft: A Path for the Underclass
It is said that on the gates of Eleusis was the inscription Know Thyself. Witchcraft, if you follow it long enough, and seek to find its deeper mysteries rather than attend Sabbats once in a while and do a spell whenever you want a new job, is all about that. It’s about Shadow Work. It’s about confronting your ego face to face, kicking it in the crotch a few times, breaking it down, and rebuilding it — with, hopefully, healthier boundaries.
We recognize this. We know it so well, that we even recognize the symptoms of an ego fighting to save itself. in the wake of this aggression. We call it High Priestess’ Disease, and far too many places in our community are run by the people doing this Work. Eventually many of them have breakdowns. Others, I think, make it through the treacherous forest, at least in part, and then disappear.
I’m not saying we’re immune to the constructs of ego. We most certainly are not! But the willingness to question ego, to challenge its authority, can be a good path to take. We’re by no means the only ones who do this. We didn’t even invent it; we can probably credit the ancient mystery cults for that, or maybe even certain Vedic traditions which are older, or perhaps even the ancient mysteries of the hunter-gatherer civilizations of our prehistory.
But it’s hard. It’s so damn hard! We’re constantly facing this exhausting challenge if we continue on this path. Our self-esteem is often in ruins. And it’s not like it brings us money, or prestige, or even any personal spiritual satisfaction aside from a plague of doubt and questioning and a deep belief that we will never, ever complete this exhausting Work.
What it does give us is greater anger directed at the hallowed halls of power, and greater empathy for the suffering of others.
No wonder most of us give up. No wonder people would rather believe they can achieve enlightenment simply by thinking positively enough. And isn’t it convenient that wealth, health and happiness are also brought to them through that path? Or at least, so they believe.
Which may be why witches are notoriously cheap. Maybe it’s because rich witches join the New Age movement, where everyone will tell them that they’re wealthy, healthy and happy because they deserve it.
Never mind that Dr. Wayne Dyer, who once bragged that the Law of Attraction was the reason why he hadn’t had a cold in twenty years, died of cancer.
It’s no wonder no one ever wants to hear about anything negative in the New Age (and part of the Pagan) community! Everyone wants to believe they’re special. Everyone wants to be believe they’re immortal, and their happiness and healthiness will last forever because they’re nicer than everyone else, or because they’re better at manifesting, or that they’re a better Christian or the gods have otherwise chosen them.
No one wants to talk about how affluent, and how white, these people are. Or how better nutrition and less stress leads to better health.
Why People Are Racist
And this applies as much to the overculture as it does to the subculture of the New Age and Pagan movements.
People don’t want to face the fact that their happy, privileged life is the result of good luck or selling out. They don’t want to face the fact that they might someday go bankrupt or get cancer. They are terrified that the only thing that keeps them from starving in the street is the presence of an entirely arbitrary number that represents their portion of an entirely fictional system of wealth, founded on nothing but belief.
They don’t want to admit that the only reason they have the things they do is because others do not have those things, and the criteria of what determines that is unfairly weighed in favour of one gender and one race.
So they make up stories. They tell themselves that Native Peoples and Hispanics are lazy. They tell themselves that black people are labouring under a “victim mentality,” and that if they just tried to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, surely they would succeed! They tell themselves that women just aren’t as good at business as men are.
They tell themselves that God has chosen them to succeed because they’re better people, or better Christians, or smarter, or sexier. They tell themselves that Haiti is beaten by hurricanes because they practice devil-worship, and they ignore or deny that tropical climates just have more hurricanes and that their white ancestors were the ones that brought the ancestors of the Haitians there.
And if they aren’t doing as well as they think they should be, they convince themselves that all they need to do is try harder. Work harder, save more, budget better, come up with a cleverer idea. And they ignore the fact that they’ve been doing the same things for twenty or forty years and falling behind, not getting ahead.
Because otherwise, they would have to confront their egos. They would have to admit that oppression of others and good luck for them are all that save them from the difficulties that so many others struggle with. And the ego doesn’t want to hear it.
Well, witches, maybe it’s time to help others to confront their egos too, don’t you think?
I’m a Pagan and speculative fiction author, a professional blogger, and a musician. I’m proudly Canadian and proudly LGBTQ. My politics are decidedly left and if you ask for my opinion, expect an honest answer. I own a dog and am owned by a cat. I used to work part time at a bookstore and I love to read, especially about faith, philosophy, science, and sci-fi and fantasy.
I’m sitting in a punk bar in April with an out-of-town socialist. He gets passionate, telling me how disappointing he finds May Day rallies back home – how the local AFL-CIO plays it safe by stumping for Democrats, while other activists demonstrate about immigration, feminism, and “anything besides class.”
“Why can’t this one day be for workers?” he sighs.
Overall, they both claim that US progressivism must pick one of their two competing orientations: liberal centrism or social democracy. Identity politics or universalism – which way forward?
Should workers have a holiday to themselves?
But there’s a flaw underlying the clashing-visions narrative. Both worldviews fundamentally misunderstand the nature of race, gender, class, and capitalism – and they do so in precisely the same way.
But in pre-capitalist society the work of each member of the community of serfs was seen to be directed to a purpose: either to the prosperity of the feudal lord or to our survival. To this extent the whole community of serfs was compelled to be co-operative in a unity of unfreedom that involved to the same degree women, children and men, which capitalism had to break. In this sense the unfree individual, the democracy of unfreedom entered into a crisis. The passage from serfdom to free labor power separated the male from the female proletarian and both of them from their children. The unfree patriarch was transformed into the “free” wage earner, and upon the contradictory experience of the sexes and the generations was built a more profound estrangement and therefore a more subversive relation.
Liberals say that opposing identity oppression means letting class politics go. Social democrats respond that they can walk and chew gum – class-based organizing can and should coexist with a strong anti-discrimination program.
But does either stance square with what race, gender, and privilege materially are?
Under capitalism, most people take part in the work that keeps society running and produces all goods and services. Sometimes that work is paid; sometimes it isn’t. In either case, though, it isn’t controlled by the people who do it. Rather, economic activity is governed by a ruling class of investors and business owners, called capitalists. They accumulate wealth by exploiting the paid and unpaid work carried out by everyone else: the working class, broadly defined. The capitalist class holds power by owning capital (productive property, the objects that workers use to produce goods and services).
The capitalist economy is enormously complex. It requires an elaborate, worldwide division of labor. The ruling class dictates the terms on which that happens. Further, the capitalists know that they don’t actually contribute to the work. Their role boils down to accumulating capital and keeping themselves in charge.
So, when dividing up labor, they hit two targets at once.
But the ruling class has figured out that it can associate different social categories with the expectation and/or requirement that their members will engage in certain types of work. When they do that, the working class itself begins to organically adapt to the capitalist division of labor. The gender role of womanhood, for instance, has unpaid gendered labor built into it. The capitalist class doesn’t send a memo to every individual woman each morning that reads, “Today we need you to clean the kitchen and comfort you boyfriend when he’s upset.” But on the ground, women, not men, are almost always the ones who do that type of work. How does that happen? Well, men have learned a social role that includes having that done for them, and women have learned one that includes doing it. Every time they re-enact those roles, they re-create them; the repeated experience of behaving the way others expect based on gender causes people to internalize those expectations, which then leads them to project them back onto others. The division of labor happens through identity categories, and it plays out in a way that keeps reinforcing them.
Of course, capitalists don’t rely on the working class to keep doing that entirely on its own. They actively intervene in daily life to keep the categories strong. While that does involve the mass media, religious doctrine, and the education system promoting stereotypes and unequal expectations, propaganda is only part of the story. Rather, the ruling class sustains and reinforces identity groups by treating some of them much worse than others. By punishing (legally or socially) those who cross category lines, it keeps the distinctions clear. Racial profiling by police helps keep certain neighborhoods white. When a church excommunicates gays, it ensures that its parishioners’ households are headed by men and produce lots of children.
Additionally, by granting cultural, legal, and material benefits to some identity groups but not others, the ruling class shores up its power. After all, when part of the working class does comparatively better as a result of the division of labor, it’s less likely to unite with the rest of the class to challenge the system overall. That’s how privilege works: it simultaneously emerges from and contributes to the capitalist division of labor, and does so in a way that pits privileged workers against the rest of their class.
Activists must understand the ways that the particular historical experiences of the United States wove race and class together that makes fighting white supremacy central to any revolutionary project. In other words, those who wish to fight against all forms of authoritarianism must understand one crucial fact of American politics—in America authority is colored white.
Race and gender don’t hover out there in the aether, independent of economic reality. If something exists, it exists in the material world. Nothing within the class system is outside the class system. Economics is more than dollars and class is more than tax brackets. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and empire aren’t extraneous features of capitalism. They’re as fundamental to it as selling products on the market. They exist because every day, people make goods and services, keeping society alive according to the division of labor embodied by identity divisions. Combined with unequal treatment, that makes sure the division of labor will still be up and running the next day. Without such a division of labor and disparity of benefits, the working class would not be as productive as the ruling class needs it to be. Without privilege to undermine the basis for class unity, the capitalists would have a revolution on their hands.
My acquaintance in the punk bar, however, didn’t view gender and race as indispensable ingredients of the class system. He wasn’t a bigot, and he supported anti-racism and feminism on moral grounds. Even so, his understanding didn’t root them in the everyday, material life of capitalism. He knew that women workers and immigrant workers are workers, no less than their white male counterparts. But, he still operated with the implicit assumption that capitalism, in general, tries to make workers as interchangeable as possible.
Apart from the skilled trades, the only jobs in which individual qualifications make a substantial difference are professional and white-collar work. Now, it’s true in principle that a less-diverse and less-qualified administrative workforce operates less effectively than one that rewards talent, rather than whiteness and maleness. But a big-box retailer doesn’t need a stocker to have an unusual talent for stacking boxes. The nature of the work is such that most any worker can do it as well as another. For most jobs, unique individual qualifications don’t really make much difference.
As more and more jobs get de-skilled, employers lose the incentive to hire based on applicants’ distinctive qualifications. Over time, specialist knowledge declines as a factor in assigning work. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism don’t. Maintaining those divisions of labor allows companies to exploit non-white, non-Western, and non-male workers at extra-high rates. That then creates downward pressure on privileged workers’ pay. De-skilling doesn’t make the working class less differentiated. It makes it more so.
And every corporation knows that whatever it loses by discriminating against qualified administrators, it makes up a thousandfold by keeping the overall division of labor intact.
Capitalism is a totalizing social system. It’s not just fiscal. Race, nation, and gender are among its components. Without them, it could not function. Had it not imposed them, it would not have been able to come into being. But social democrats and liberals don’t quite grasp that. Instead, they view gender, class, and race as more-or-less independent “vectors of oppression” that might inflect each other when they intersect, but still don’t reduce to any shared underlying cause.
And so, liberals and social democrats end up holding in common the view that class, in principle, is ultimately raceless and genderless. They agree that capitalism and privilege exist, but that opposing one doesn’t require opposing the other. They differ on only one point: social democrats say “both/and” to identity and class, while liberals say “either/or.”
Neither view is adequate. Their shared assumption isn’t true.
White supremacy is a system that grants those defined as “white” special privileges in American society, such as preferred access to the best schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and health care; greater advantages in accumulating wealth; a lesser likelihood of imprisonment; and better treatment by the police and the criminal justice system. In exchange for these privileges, whites agree to police the rest of the population through such means as slavery and segregation in the past and through formally “colorblind” policies and practices today that still serve to maintain white advantage. White supremacy, then, unites one section of the working class with the ruling class against the rest of the working class. This cross-class alliance represents the principle obstacle, strategically speaking, to revolution in the United States. Given the United States’ imperial power, this alliance has global implications.
The central task of a new organization should be to break up this unholy alliance between the ruling class and the white working class by attacking the system of white privilege and the subordination of people of color.
But what difference does this make on the ground? Doesn’t good socialist practice still mean pro-worker economics plus anti-racist, feminist social politics? Whether or not it’s all a unitary system, what is concretely at stake?
If race, gender, and empire are inherent to capitalism, the meaning of “good socialist practice” starts to shift.
If a socialist revolution is to happen, the working class must unite. If the class is to unite, revolutionaries must challenge the material and cultural basis of its disunity. So, every political project the Left undertakes needs to specifically challenge privilege within the working class, not sweep it under the rug to avoid “divisiveness.” If your organizing doesn’t meet that standard, you’re not building class unity. You’re tearing it down. There is no raceless and genderless class politics because there is no raceless and genderless class. So, trying to compartmentalize anti-privilege and anti-capitalist work is implicitly chauvinistic (except when it’s explicitly so!). The Left must reject all politics that doesn’t break down intra-class privilege, even when it comes from “our side.”
The social-democratic revival waxes nostalgic for the postwar welfare state, calling for “universal social goods” with anti-discrimination laws tacked on. Its proponents posit a revival of Scandinavian-style social programs as a bulwark against the populist Right and a viable “long game” anti-capitalist strategy. But welfare nostalgia doesn’t naturally lead towards revolutionary socialism. Due to its backwards-looking frame of reference, it fits more intuitively with welfare chauvinism: the tactic used by far-right leaders, from Marine Le Pen to Richard Spencer, of promising to restore not only the social-democratic redistribution, but also the much harsher identity hierarchies of the pre-70s years. And in practice, even avowedly left-wing social democrats are not immune to welfare-chauvinist temptations. Jeremy Corbyn and Sahra Wagenknecht‘s stated anti-racism hasn’t kept them from demanding immigration restrictions. Angela Nagle‘s claimed feminism doesn’t stop her from scapegoating trans people for the sins of online call-out culture.
The social-democratic “both/and” doesn’t work. Why should it? It attempts to sidestep the question of privilege within the class, not attack it. Opposing privilege as a matter of class-neutral morality rather than working-class strategy leans, over time, towards chauvinism.
For the consequences of the ending of white supremacy, which can only be ended by mobilizing and raising the consciousness of the entire working class, would extend far beyond the point of spreading out the misery more equitably. The result of such a struggle would be a working class that was class conscious, highly organized, experienced and militant – in short, united – and ready to confront the ruling class as a solid block. The ending of white supremacy does not pose the slightest peril to the real interests of the white workers; it definitely poses a peril to their fancied interests, their counterfeit interest, their white-skin privileges.
Does this mean radicals should take a two-stage approach: anti-discrimination now, socialism later?
Both privileged and specially-oppressed parts of the working class have two sets of interests: long-term and short-term. For non-privileged workers, there’s a long-term interest in abolishing capitalism and a short-term interest in eliminating privilege. Privilege is part of capitalism and specially-oppressed workers stand to benefit straightforwardly from getting rid of the system and all of its parts. Privileged workers, though, are in a bind. They share other workers’ long-term interest in ending capitalism. But in the short term, privilege makes their lives better. So, their long-term and short-term interests contradict each other; they share the former with their entire class, but the latter keeps them from recognizing it. Strategically, the trick is to organize privileged workers around their long-term interests – even though that means opposing their own short-term interests.
Liberal anti-discrimination, however, doesn’t do that. It doesn’t want to. There’s a reason it focuses on academia, middle-class professions, and the coverage of media stars with oppressed backgrounds. That flows naturally from its class basis. It aims to remove the barriers that keep middle-class and upper-class members of oppressed identity groups from enjoying full middle/upper-class success. However, that success consists of exploiting working-class people, including those who share their identities.
Privilege and class aren’t separate. The Left’s work against them can’t afford to be, either.
If May Day is about immigrants and feminism, doesn’t that mean it’s about workers?
So how should the Left proceed?
If the unitary view of class and privilege rejects liberal anti-discrimination, it also leads away from standard welfare-statist anti-austerity. Should leftists oppose austerity? They shouldn’t support it, since its implementation (like the welfare state’s before it) is done in a way that strengthens capitalist rule (including by shoring up privilege). But the Left’s goal can’t be a return to the postwar “golden years.” Revolutionaries can’t afford nostalgia.
Rather, directly tackling the basis of class rule (including privilege) can best happen outside the framework of state services and legislation. You can conceptualize it through an anarchist, Marxist, municipalist, or whatever other lens, but in the end, only the dual power strategy‘s institution-building approach allows radicals to confront the capitalist class while challenging the division of labor it imposes.
What does that look like in practice?
Q-Patrol in Seattle, WA claims that gentrification in the gay district is behind the past several years’ sharply-rising hate violence. The influx of wealthy software engineers drives up rent and displaces LGBTQ people (replacing them with sometimes-homophobic tech yuppies). Consequently, the neighborhood’s ability to function as a safe haven declines. Losing that “critical mass” of LGBTQ people makes the area more attractive to straight college students looking for nightlife. So, with more drunk, conservative straight people in the district, increased hate violence isn’t exactly a surprise.
Gay business owners, though, have called for more police in the area to quell attacks. But a greater police presence actually accelerates the process. The people most targeted by homophobic and transphobic assaults are often people of color, unhoused people, and/or sex workers. The police themselves harass and sometimes attack members of those groups. Meanwhile, their ambient presence emboldens the same well-off bigots who are behind the violence in the first place.
Q-Patrol’s solution is a community safety patrol, preventing and intervening in attacks while monitoring the police, Copwatch-style. Q-Patrol therefore resists gentrification (which threatens all working-class people in the area, LGBTQ or straight) by displacing an ostensible function of the police (protecting the community). The institution-building strategy hinges on this kind of function displacement. Capitalist institutions organize different aspects of life in ways that reinforce privilege and the division of labor. If leftists build counter-institutions, people can use them organize those same parts of life in ways that don’t do that.
Because its basic work is preventing hate violence and its roots are directly in the LGBTQ community, Q-Patrol directly challenges straight privilege. However, it does so in a way that simultaneously furthers the interests of the neighborhood’s entire working class, straights included. There’s no “both/and”-ism – it doesn’t artificially pin anti-discrimination onto supposedly raceless and gender-free “class issues.” Instead, its work intrinsically and organically does both at once.
That’s the approach the Left needs. The conflict between social democracy and “identity politics” is a red herring. They share a worldview in which privilege and class exist independently of each other. Because of that, both end up supporting capitalism and privilege, since materially, they are the same system. Neither liberals nor social democrats, though, are interested in attacking that system as the coherent, integrated whole that it actually is. Revolutionaries can’t afford that limited perspective. If May Day isn’t about women and immigrants, then it’s not about class.
The Left must confront the class system itself, challenging the ruling class and its division of labor. Radicals shouldn’t fight one limb of the system in a way that strengthens another. Autonomous working-class politics, based on the dual power strategy of institution-building, has a chance of breaking out of that trap.
Last month, a town near me saw its first May Day rally in decades. Because “working class” means more than “blue-collar white men,” the organizers invited me to talk about disability and other speakers to address white supremacy, climate justice, and patriarchy.
My speech observed that the paid work of formally-employed workers and the unpaid work of unemployed workers (housework, childcare, social and emotional support, etc) depend on each other. Society can’t run with just one of them. They’re like a nail and a hammer: without both, you can’t build a thing. Disabled and abled workers are both part of that reciprocal process, including disabled people who will never have access to paid work. But under capitalism, the ruling business-ownership class controls the economy, government, and culture. So, no one but them has meaningful social power, even though society only exists because of our collective labor (paid and unpaid). Therefore, we share an interest in doing away with the current system. Sticking up for each of us is in the enlightened self-interest of all of us. We don’t need moralistic notions of allyship – we need to fight for each other, together, because otherwise only the ruling class wins.
Before May 1, the organizers needed a speaker bio. I didn’t hesitate to talk about my political work, but I agonized about whether to mention that I’m autistic. I didn’t believe that simply being disabled qualified me to speak. I thought that my knowledge of the issues and on-the-ground political practice did. However, I intended to say that disabled and abled workers ultimately have exactly the same interests and that neither has meaningful social power. So, I finally did disclose my disability. After all, I was criticizing the basic assumption of most social justice disability politics: that all abled people benefit from the oppression of disabled people and, therefore, are complicit in it. If I hadn’t announced my autism, I could have exposed the event to accusations of booking an abled Marxist to “ablesplain.”
As it happened, my speech was well-received. The crowd wasn’t the typical activist scene; nearly everyone there was from either the AFL-CIO, the Industrial Workers of the World, or a local, independent farmworkers union. However, based on past experience, a less unusual “anti-oppression” crowd (say, college student activists) would likely not have been so receptive. In situations like that, I’ve noticed three typical responses:
The audience ignores the content and responds as though it had been the standard social justice position.
The audience reflexively defers to the critique on the basis of the speaker’s identity – and instead of actually engaging with the substance, confesses their own privilege while changing neither their ideas nor their practice.
You may notice a pattern there. While those committed to allyship-model politics may talk about taking marginalized voices seriously, in practice there’s not much room for anyone, regardless of identity, to dispute their basic political assumptions.
The credibility they grant ostensibly on the basis of identity actually depends on political agreement. They might say “disabled people are telling us to check our privilege and understand our complicity in ableism,” but disabled people who don’t say that tend to get brushed over or called out.
Now, that in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Defending opinions one agrees with and attacking other views is just part of what it means to take ideas seriously – it’s legitimate and necessary for any sort of politics. But why, then, frame it in terms of who is talking rather than what they’re saying? It’s empirically untrue that all members of a given identity group have basically the same politics. Why does social justice talk as though they do?
Disclosing my autism gave some cover to the rally’s organizers. But, I could have gone further.
Broadly speaking, social justice says that being disabled should be the main qualification to talk about disability. Even so, I could have boosted my credibility further by claiming additional marginalized identities. For instance, “autistic person” carries less intersectional weight than “autistic nonbinary trans woman.” For the subculture, more marginality means more right to speak – at least on the surface.
But for social justice, there’s more to identity than just the identities people have. “Autistic nonbinary trans woman” might give my words more intersectional force than “autistic,” but “autistic nonbinary trans woman who has survived rape and abuse” carries me substantially further. That ought to sound pretty strange – after all, having been raped isn’t an identity. Every identity group has some members who have been raped. It’s an experience, not an attribute.
Identity and privilege, though, tend to get framed almost exclusively in terms of “lived experience.” For instance, non-men are often assumed to understand patriarchy in ways men simply can’t because of their fundamentally different lived experiences. The line between what you are and what you’ve been through starts to melt away. But why should that be? What puts “being a woman,” or “being disabled,” in the same category as “having been abused by a partner?” What’s the common thread between a specific act of violence and an identity that’s there throughout your entire social existence?
Perhaps the social justice subculture doesn’t actually care about identity. It cares about suffering.
“Oh, baby, don’t you have a story? Of abjection, ruin, despair? Did you lose a child? A lover? Were you not raped? Beaten? Oppressed? How could you possibly go through all that and not confess, confess, confess? How can we possibly think of you as real if you don’t confess? No tragic dramas? Make them up! But, always: Confess and Reveal.”
In the US, like the rest of the world, most people are in the (paid and unpaid) working class. The social justice subculture, though, is different.
It’s rooted in cultural studies classrooms, student clubs, Facebook cliques, Democrat-in-practice “non-partisan” nonprofits, and the recent graduates that fill out the scene. While working-class people can be found as individual participants, it’s the professional-managerial class that holds (sub)cultural hegemony: its ideas, interests, and preferences dictate the entire community’s priorities and beliefs. And like the rest of the professional-managerial class, the “anti-oppression community” is richer, whiter, and more privileged in general than the working class.
When marginalized people suffer in public for a social justice audience, not everyone watching is very privileged. However, as a rule the allies far outnumber the self-advocates (hence the preoccupation with allyship and privilege over liberation and strategy in the first place). So, when the subculture proclaims the pain of the oppressed, the point isn’t to “amplify and normalize marginalized voices.” It’s a performance with a very particular purpose. The social justice subculture exploits oppressed people’s pain to prove to its members that their politics are moral.
On May Day, why did I resent having to foreground my disability? I wasn’t ashamed of being autistic. I just hated the thought of being a prop. I don’t want the subculture to use my suffering as Exhibit A to prove how right their beliefs are (especially since I think many of their beliefs aren’t right at all).
“We do not advocate exhorting white workers on an individual basis to give up their privileged status. What we do advocate is promoting vigorous struggle with the ruling class with equality at the forefront and to articulate the lessons of these struggles.”
There’s another agenda in play. The professional-managerial class doesn’t want to lose control of progressive politics. We will have to force it to, because otherwise the working class will keep losing. Working-class power is the soul of any Left worth the name. But the social justice subculture doesn’t want revolution – it wants self-congratulation. Paradoxically, that goal is served by its fixation on suffering, privilege, and personal complicity in larger social systems. When “anti-oppression” activists self-flagellate, they create a nearly Protestant sense of collective morality. You want grace? Admit your sin. You want validation? Admit your complicity, your privilege.
Thankfully, their underlying beliefs aren’t true. The ability to change society comes from the latent power of the people who create society (and everything in it): the working class, paid and unpaid. We can only free ourselves by getting rid of the ruling class. Now, for anyone who wants working-class unity, privilege isn’t a useless idea. In fact, it’s vital. Male, white, abled, and otherwise-privileged members of our class are materially less exploited than other workers. They receive tangible and intangible benefits that set them apart from the rest of the class. Working-class unity doesn’t just drop out of nowhere. It has to be knit together, thread by thread, struggle by struggle. Unless fighting privilege and class-based organizing happen through and alongside each other, we will defeat neither capitalism nor privilege. Privilege is part of the class system. It doesn’t float around somewhere in the ether; nothing under capitalism is outside capitalism. Revolutionaries who ignore it can only fail. In a white supremacist and deeply patriarchal society like the US, cultural and material privilege does more to destroy working-class unity than anything else, and avoiding the issue doesn’t make class-based organizing easier. It makes it impossible.
However, the social justice subculture has no useful role in that work. It doesn’t actually break down privilege within the working class. That would mean helping privileged workers understand that opposing their privilege is not self-sacrifice but enlightened self-interest, and proving it through the experience of class struggle. But the subculture prefers to dismiss (or even attack) the working class, while acting as though privilege is a law of nature instead of something we can abolish. The trope that “working class” is a euphemism for “white men who think they’re not privileged” is not honest analysis. It’s psychological projection – the social justice milieu is irredeemably by and for the professional-managerial class, which is disproportionately white and male. We should reject it as such.
There’s been a lot of argument on the Pagan internet lately about whether Paganism and Polytheism are political, per se, or whether we need to have political-free zones in Paganism.
Some of the confusion has to do with definitions. When people hear “politics”, they tend to think of political candidates, elections, and voting. And they think about people arguing about political candidates, elections, and voting. And, really, who wants to have that at your next Lughnasadh ritual or in your devotional ritual to Lugh?
But politics is a lot more than elections and voting. It’s even more than signing petitions, boycotting products, and marching in the streets. Politics is about power: who gets to use it and when and how. Politics is how we decide who has power … and who doesn’t. Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” If we flip that around, we see that politics is how we peacefully (more or less) resolve the question of who gets to exercise power over whom.
When politics is understood in this way, then it’s easier to see that there is really no place or zone that is free of politics. Not the marketplace. Not school. Not church. And not your Pagan and Polytheist circles.
Why? Because all of these places are permeated by complex power relationships, and in all of these places, we are either working to reform these power relationships or we are reinforcing the status quo by our passivity. You’re either doing one or the other. There’s no escaping it. And if you’re not doing it consciously, then it’s happening implicitly, in the background of all your words and actions.
Privilege makes politics invisible
And this is why statements like “Gods before politics” reinforce white, male, hetero-, and cis- privilege. And this is why the notion that there should be non-political spaces in Paganism is so insidious. The idea can sound very reasonable — especially when it is delivered in a calm and equanimous fashion to others similarly situated. So much of privileged talk is like this. While those who are less privileged seem to be railing about invisible powers.
It’s easy to say there should be non-political spaces when your existence is not perpetually under threat by virtue of your difference, by virtue of your conformity to white, male, hetero-, cis-normativity. But if you are female, if you are a person of color, if you are queer, or gay, or lesbian, or if you are trans, or if you are disabled, then there is no such thing as a non-political space for you. Because almost everywhere you go, you are being told implicitly, if not explicitly, that you do not belong, that you do not have the same rights as others, that the exercise of power over you by privileged others is right and justified and deity-sanctioned.
“There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are […] oppressed through the very structures which make up our society […]
“For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.
“[…] for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.”
In a recent post, entitled “Why the Gods Come Before Politics”, John Beckett responded to Drekisdottir, arguing for the possibility of non-political spaces in Pagan and Polytheist circles. Interestingly, in the process of trying to make his point, Beckett actually disproves it when he says that “there are limits”. He writes:
“There is no place for racism in Paganism and polytheism – Stephen McNallen is not welcome at any circle I lead. There is no place for transphobia in Paganism and polytheism – Ruth Barrett is not welcome at any circle I lead.”
That is a political position, an explicit one. And every time Beckett holds a circle and explicitly or implicitly communicates that racism and transphobia are not welcome in his circle, he is being political.
“We are most happy to report that none of our clergy subscribe to your views on mixed race or gay marriage, and so we cannot assist you in your upcoming visit to Ireland.
“Yours very sincerely, Everyone at Pagan Federation Ireland.”
That was a political action. If the Pagan Federation had helped the Odinists find a racist, homophobic clergy-person to conduct their wedding, that would have been a political action too. And (pay attention now) if the Pagan Federation had just ignored the request, that would have been a political action too.
The next time someone tells you their Paganism is not political (or the next time you think it yourself), ask whether they would welcome a Neo-Nazi to their ritual or place a swastika on their altar. If the answer is “no”, then ask them why. Their answer will inevitably be political — because it has to do with who has power and who does not. If they say “yes”, then ask how they think a Black person would feel at their ritual or standing before their altar, and whether they care, and why or why not. That answer will inevitably be political too. We are being political whether we are conscious of it or not.
Is your Pagan circle explicitly open to LGBTs? Is so, congratulations, your circle is political. If not, shame on you, but your circle is political too — it’s implicitly political. Has your Polytheist group declared that Black Lives Matter? If so, good job, your group is political. If not, you need to wake up, but your group is still political.
The luxury of being “non-political”
Only a white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied person like me, or like John Beckett, could really believe that such non-political spaces exist. As Kiya Nicoll wrote in the comments to Drekisdottir’s essay:
Only people like Beckett and me have the privilege or the luxury of being (or seeming to be) non-political. We have that luxury because every aspect of society is structured so as to make us feel empowered and diminish our discomfort. We have that privilege because the people who exercise power in our society look like us, and act like us, and love like us. And because of that, we can believe in the myth of non-political spaces. Other people don’t have that privilege. What I perceive as politically neutral spaces are in fact highly adversarial spaces for people who do not look like me or love like me.
(Not to mention, we have the luxury of being “non-political” only because two generations of Pagans have fought for our political right to be Pagan and openly so. We still have a lot of work to do to secure our rights as Pagans, but we’ve come a long way. If we we couldn’t hold open Pagan circles or if Christianity were the national religion, I wonder how “non-political” Pagans would be then!)
It’s true that there is no political test for Paganism. There are Pagans who Democrats and Republicans and Greens. There are liberal and progressive Pagans and conservative and right-wing Pagans. There are anarchist Pagans and there are libertarian Pagans. But saying there is no political test for Paganism is not the same thing as saying Paganism is not political. Your Pagan tradition may not tell you how to answer specific political questions of the day, but there is no escaping those questions.
If you’re not being consciously and intentionally political, then you being unconsciously and non-intentionally political. And I think there are good reason, good Pagan reasons, for favoring the former over the latter, for favoring conscious activism over unconscious conformity to the status quo. In fact, I think the definition of an “activist” is simply someone who performs their politics actively and explicitly, rather than passively and implicitly.
Beckett writes, “Good religion has both an internal focus (becoming better people) and an external focus (building a better world).” He’s right about that. Where he’s wrong is thinking that one of these is political and the other isn’t. Both inner work and external activism are political. Being political isn’t just about working to change the world; it’s also about working to change ourselves too. And some of that work has to do with recognizing our privilege and learning how to use it for good, rather than perpetuating the status quo.
The politics of the gods
Beckett is right that we all need to do spiritual work, to stay connected to our source. If activists don’t engage in self-care, if we don’t stay connected to the source of our inspiration and energy, then we burn out. But it’s not a question of whether to perform devotions to our gods or get out in the street and march. We need both, obviously. But if you think you’re not being political when your praying to your gods, then you’re deluding yourself. Think about it … What are you praying for? Are you asking for help to make the world a more just and peaceful place? Or are you only praying for more divine favors for yourself, to keep what you have, and get more for yourself? If it’s the former, then you’re being political. If it’s the latter, you’re being political, too — just in a bad way.
And what about our gods? Do your gods bear an uncanny resemblance to you? If your gods are Black or queer, then your choice of gods is political, because it is a challenge to the status quo. And if you’re white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and able-bodied, and your gods are too, well then, your choice of gods is also political. If it’s because you’re avoiding cultural appropriation, that’s political. But if it’s because it’s what you were drawn to, then that’s political too, implicitly. And if you tell me your gods chose you, not the other way around, and that their resemblance to you is purely coincidental … well, I would invite you to look more closely at that.
Consider these images, which were among the first that came up when I Googled “Pagan god” …
Our choice of gods is a highly political act. I wonder why so many Pagans can be critical of the actions of the Abrahamic god, and yet seemingly uncritical when it comes to Pagan gods. As “timberwraith” wrote in response to Beckett’s post, just because a god is more powerful than us, does not make it more virtuous or more just:
“[…] the Abrahamic god is deeply flawed at best. So, that begs the question of how many other gods are questionable in their values and conduct, the degree to which they value human life, and their preference in followers. […]
“The Abrahamic god has been a source of active and violent oppression of queer people for ages. I’m not about to give any other deity automatic respect as a divine guru of awesomeness. Just because people label an aware, non-biological entity as a ‘god’ doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically kiss their supposedly divine bottom. […]
“If the gods are truly individuals, some will behave like complete rotters, some will behave with care and empathy, and a large swath will fall between those possible modes of conduct. Respect should only be applied to those individuals who deserve such consideration. That means one must actively evaluate the nature and persona of said individuals…and that inevitably involves politics, for politics, by definition, concerns the flow and conduct of power, and allegiances formed in the context of power. If god-like entities hold greater power than those of an embodied existence, then said power differential indicates that the realm of the political applies.”
Beckett quotes Abraham Lincoln as saying, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,” to support his argument for putting the Gods before politics. But — and this is critical — Lincoln’s conception of “God” was of an infallibly just and virtuous being. The pagan gods, in contrast, are not described in this way. In fact, they are often ambivalent and sometimes antagonistic to human cares. As I’ve written before:
“If the myths are to be believed on any level, the gods are just as flawed as human beings — they just have more power. Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?”
Now, if one of these statements bothers you and the other doesn’t, you have to ask: What it is about the Pagan gods that you think puts them, and not Jesus, above politics?
I admit, I’m just starting to understand how privileged the statements like “gods before politics” is. And when I first read Drekisdottir’s essay, I didn’t really get it. So I shouldn’t be too hard to Beckett. But people like him and me need to get this. We need to see that when we are supposedly being “non-political” we are nevertheless reinforcing structures of power that privilege us and hurt others — and that is political. The myth of non-political Pagan spaces acts as a blindfold for many of us in the Pagan community — especially those of us Pagans who are privileged. It perpetuates implicit racism, patriarchy, and hetero- and cis-normativity — all of which continue to exist in our Pagan spaces, whether we see it or not (especially if we don’t). And if we’re not consciously and actively working to see it and deal with it, then we’re passively helping to sweep it back under the rug.
The topic of “honor” is of interest to some heathens and pagans, especially those who see themselves as being on a “warrior path.” According to the “Heathen Handbook” (ℑ) of the Wodens Folk Kindred:
Honor is the foundation of heathen society. Honor is a person’s measure of their virtue and worth… A person’s honor comes from within…
This reminds me of a scene from the movie Rob Roy, in which the title character (a Highland warrior of the 18th century) tells his boys that honor is “a gift you give yourself,” and that no one can take it away from you.
Unfortunately, this is not a historically accurate understanding of honor, either in the Gaelic society portrayed in the movie or in ancient Norse society. However, it’s no accident that the Wodens Folk Kindred and the screenwriter of Rob Roy misinterpreted honor in exactly the same way, because modern American society no longer values honor as much as it once did and has largely forgotten what it originally meant.
In American society not so long ago, honor had nothing to do with your internal measure of your own worth, it definitely didn’t come from within and other people could easily take it away from you. According to the Missouri state government archives article on Southern dueling culture:
The duel usually developed out of the desire of a gentleman to rectify a perceived insult to his honor. It was thought better to die respectably in a duel over an insult than to live on without honor… Only gentlemen were thought to have honor, and therefore eligible to duel. To maintain status and social standing a gentleman had to be willing to take his chances on the field of honor. On the other hand, the Code Duello frowned upon men of unequal social class settling their differences by dueling. If a gentleman was insulted by a person of lower class he would not duel him, but might proceed with a caning or cowhiding to humiliate his opponent. ∴
In other words, honor in the United States was not defined by what you thought of yourself, but solely by what other people thought of you. Honor was the same thing as social status, reputation, perceived power in the community… in a word, privilege.
If you didn’t have enough privilege relative to the person you were in conflict with, you didn’t have any honor to lose so you weren’t allowed to take offense at anything he said or did. On the other hand, if he got irritated by anything you said or did, he could beat you publicly with a stick or a whip.
If the two of you were roughly equal in status, you would resolve the issue through lethal combat. That hasn’t really changed – during the dueling era, the primary killers of aristocrats were other aristocrats and the primary killers of lower class people were other lower class people. In the modern United States, assaults and homicides usually occur among peers and very often over issues of respect and disrespect.
This has a lot of relevance to recent events – if you want to claim self-defense after a shooting, it helps to have higher social status than the person you shot. If you have lower social status or privilege, your actions probably won’t be interpreted as self-defense by police, prosecutors or juries. Every person has the same right to defend themselves from violent assault in the law as written, but not in the law as actually enforced. Just as in the dueling culture of the 19th century, violence is expected to be used on the same social level or downward – but never upward.
According to the Wodens Folk Kindred:
In the modern world, many laugh at honor as an outdated and unrealistic concept.
This may be true, but if honor is actually just a measure of how much privilege the community grants you – including the privilege to violently dominate those of lower status – then perhaps we shouldn’t be idealizing it in the first place. But is this what honor meant to our pagan and polytheist ancestors?
According to the late Alexei Kondratiev, all of the ancient Celtic words for honor refer to your reputation and perceived power, not your inner integrity:
The traditional Irish word that is usually translated as “honor” is ‘oineach’ … which originally means “face”… Thus the idea of honor is primarily related to one’s “face” which must be saved in the eyes of the community. A closely related concept, often mentioned in the same contexts, is that of ‘clú’ (“reputation” or “fame”), which comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to hear” and thus refers to what is being said about someone. To be honorable, then, is to maintain one’s “face” before the community and to be “heard of” in a good way. Dishonor comes from losing “face” and being “heard of” in a bad way. The term ‘enech’ also expresses the idea of personal power, since as long as one has “face” in the community one is able to influence others: thus people or things that are your responsibility or otherwise under your protection are described as being “on” or “under” your “face”. When you lose “face”, of course, you’re no longer able to extend the protection… What emerges from this is a sense of honor and dishonor being very much defined by the community, rather than the individually chosen codes of honor that are more characteristic of our modern way of thinking. ⊕
According to the book Honor by Frank Henderson Stewart, the ancient Norse concept of honor was originally defined by the mikilmenni or “Big Man” – a man with good ancestors, social influence, a dominant personality and wealth. In other words, privilege and the respect of the community, just as in other cultures. However, the Norse later developed a concept they called drengskappir which was based more on individual courage and integrity and less on community opinion or political power. Drengskappir was available not only to “Big Men” but to free people of all classes.
However, even though drengskappir was probably a lot closer to modern ideas of honor as a kind of inner integrity, it was still largely determined by community opinion. According to Hurstwic (a Viking historical research organization):
A man’s fame and honor in life, and his good name after death, were so important that a man was hypersensitive to the opinion of the community. He might not otherwise fear anything nor flinch at death, but the respect of the community was of paramount importance. Any offence in word or deed, or anything that might blot one’s honor had to be dealt with firmly in order to maintain that respect. So a Norseman was constantly on the alert for wrongs against his person or his name. Those wrongs were proclaimed openly, and then avenged. ψ
So, drengskappir was available to people from more than one social class, but it was still very much dependent on community opinion and the willingness of the person who claimed to have drengskappir to defend that claim by violent force. It is essentially a less classist equivalent of the later Code Duello, and just like the Code Duello it requires extreme sensitivity to insult as a precondition of any claim to honor.
This is where the whole issue of honor in a heathen or pagan context becomes ironic. The Conservative Pagan, Heathen and Traditionalist Webring, now defunct, described itself as placing “a high value on reason, honor and piety, and none on political correctness.”
Google defines political correctness as “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”
So, in effect the “Conservative Heathens” were saying that they had no intention of granting honor (the right to take offense) to those who were of lower social status (the “socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”) Just like the Code Duello, honor is only in effect between those of equal privilege – a person of lower status cannot take offense because they are perceived as having no honor to lose.
Conservatives often complain that people have become too sensitive to perceived insults. This may be true, but historically a “man of honor” was by definition a person who was hypersensitive to insult. Saying “he would not resent an insult” was a grave accusation of cowardice and would have resulted in a duel – in the Old South or in old Iceland.
Thus, for marginalized people to take offense at insults can be understood as an assertion that they too have honor or status, and to dismiss that as “political correctness” can be understood as an attempt to keep them “in their place.”
As modern heathens, pagans and polytheists, does this mean we should get rid of the concept of honor completely? I don’t think we can. If honor is simply your reputation and status in the community, then honor will always be with us in some form. There are aspects of the old honor codes that many pagans would still admire, such as the emphasis on being morally courageous and true to your word as a precondition for being honored by the community. But we create our own community, so we get to decide for ourselves what we want to honor and what we don’t.
The ancient Norse honored those who avenged insults with violence, but we don’t have to. We can choose to honor those who speak up when they are insulted even under the threat of violence from those with higher status and power. We can choose to honor those who honor everyone instead of only the members of their own privileged class.
Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.