Catalunya and the Coming Flood

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Catalonia has opened a flood-gate. Whether or not they succeed, the rushing waters cannot be held back.

From Rhyd Wildermuth

 

He’d sent his favorite painting to his friend in Paris, a friend who’d managed to hide his anti-fascist politics long enough to keep his position in an archive as Nazi bootsteps echoed through the streets of France. He bid auf wiedersehen to his hosts in Marseilles, especially his close friend Hannah Arendt, stuffed the loose leaves of his final manuscript into a valise, and traveled to the small town of Cerbère, at the tip of the southwesternmost part of mainland France.

The Gestapo had direct orders to apprehend him. So, too, did the Stalinists.  There was no where else for him to run but here.

He’d gotten a visa, arranged by an American poet friend. But the Nazis would not let a Jew leave France through any port, and his only hope was to flee by boat from Portugal. To get there, though, he would have to travel through Fascist Spain, and to get into Spain he had only one hope: Catalonia.

Only a year before, Catalonia had been free, the last bastion of anarchist and leftist resistance in Europe as fascism swept through the continent. Many Catalonians still remembered, still resisted, including the former mayor of the town of Portbou, just on the other side of the Pyrenees from Cerbère. The mayor had helped resistance fighters to the fascist Franco regime flee in France, and now he would help the Jewish Marxist philosopher, Walter Benjamin, flee the fascists in France towards safety.

I wish this story ended well.

I wish I could tell you a happy tale of how Benjamin, exhausted and harried, arrived finally at a port in Lisbon and from there sailed from European fascism forever. But he arrived in Portbou one day too late; Franco had just issued a decree that any Jews in Spain without Spanish citizenship should be immediately deported to France, and he was put under house arrest by the Guardia Civil.

Even the still-burning heart of resistance in Catalonia could not save him against the full weight of the Spanish government. But rather than face the gas chambers of Germany, he injected himself with a lethal dose of morphine, the last entry in his journal quoting Kafka:

“There is plenty of hope. But not for us.”

Last year I, along with my best friend who’d been haunted for months with dreams of the dead philosopher, followed the rocky and steep trail Walter Benjamin took across the Pyrenees from Cerbère to Portbou. The path leads ever upward, winding its way through outposts of cork oak and vast oceans of wildflowers, with the blue-green of the Mediterranean always at your back until you reach the dizzying top. But as you descend the Catalonian side, the entire land seems to change around you, massive cactus and scrubby bushes your primary companion. By the time you reach Portbou, you are in a different world completely though barely a few miles as a crow might fly from where you started.

Neither of us ever really quite understood why we made that trek. It was her first mountain climb, my first in years. The whole trip had been one of anxiety–uncertainty why we were there in the first place, confusion about the path, panic about our insufficient plans and the mere handful of coins we’d had between us during the journey. We’d run out of water before we got to the top, arrived exhausted and hurried in Portbou, realizing we had just enough money to take a train out but barely enough time to catch it, and neither of us speak Spanish or Catalan.

Why did we make that trip? Why cross a mountain just to spend brief minutes in the small town where our favorite philosopher died? And why did we feel so much dread that day and the days afterward, fearing something was coming we were supposed to prepare for?

Watching what is happening in Catalonia and the rest of the world now, I suspect I know a bit more of those answers.

“Catalonia is Not Spain”

By now you’ve probably heard about it all. Earlier this month, a vote was held in the semi-autonomous region for independence. The Spanish government declared it illegal and sent out the Guardia Civil (whose insignia is still a fasces) to seize ballot boxes and beat up old women who’d cast their vote. And then, on the 27th of October, at 3:35 pm local time, the Catalonian leaders followed the direction of the voters and declared independence.

In just 24 hours, the conservative Spanish government had moved to depose the independence leaders, had seized control over local police and emergency services, threatened parliamentarians with treason, taken over the public broadcasting services in Catalonia and installed their own leaders over the region.

And as of the writing of this essay, Spain has jailed 9 of the elected leaders of the Catalonian government who partook in the independence move. They are charged with treason and sedition, eight of them without possibility of bail, and must together pay 6.7 million Euros to cover the Spanish government’s ‘court costs’ or have all their possessions seized.

Worse from the government is promised.

But while the Spanish government attempts to punish Catalunya for its desire to be independent of the nation-state of Spain, it is not the only one showing disapproval. Large corporations are threatening to leave Barcelona or have already done so, the same process of “Capital flight” which has brought many a populist and leftist government in the global south to its knees.

And the leaders of the ‘free world’ have made clear which side they are on, and it’s not the people of Catalonia:

  • The United States under Donald Trump issued a statement through the State Department vowing to support “the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united.”
  • Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, was even harsher, stating Britain “does not and will not” recognise Catalonia as an independent entity.
  • Emmanuel Macron, the pro-capitalist leader of France, stated: “There is a rule of law in Spain with constitutional rules. Mariano Rajoy wants these rules to be respected and he has my full support.”
  • From Angela Merkel’s government spokesman: “The German government does not recognise such a declaration of independence.”
  • From Turkey, whose leader Erdogan has violently put down Kurdish attempts at independence (including ordering the beating of American supporters of the Kurds): “Turkey will continue to support Spain’s territorial integrity, constitution and political integrity.”
  • And from the president of the European Union, Donald Tusk: “For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor.”

As of the writing of this essay, the only European government to be somewhat supportive of Catalonia has been the Scottish Parliament, who were blocked from efforts to join the European Union independent of Britain after Brexit by the Spanish leader Mariano Rajoy himself. Belgium, currently ruled by a coalition which includes separatists, made a less supportive statement but has tweeted out instructions to Catalonians on how to seek asylum within Belgium in the likely event of Spanish political repression. The deposed president of Catalonia fled there already with 8 other Catalonian independence ministers.

And what about Russia? In multiple statements since the initial referendum, Vladimir Putin has made clear Catalonia “is Spain’s internal business and must be resolved within Spanish law and on the basis of democratic traditions,” though certainly seems eager to capitalize on the European Union’s double-standards regarding support for independence movements.

That so much condemnation has quickly come from the leaders of the “free world” should give anyone dismissive of Catalonia’s independence bid pause. When Donald Trump, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Erdoğan all agree Catalonia must remain part of Spain, something else is probably going on here.

That ‘something else’ is much bigger than Catalonia itself. If anything, Catalunya’s desire for self-governance threatens the entire capitalist world order.

The Identity Politics of the Nation

To understand the threat Catalunya presents not just to Spain but to capitalism itself, we need to look at the concept of the nation-state and its relationship to capitalism. But before that, we need to unravel precisely what a Nation is and how it is used to control people.

First, we must remember: most of the modern nation-states in existence are relatively new.  For instance, what we know of as Italy was birthed in 1871; Germany came fully into existence that same year. France as a nation-state was born in 1792, a little after the United States (1776). But even still it is not quite correct to look at any of these nations as being quite so old: the United States has only existed in its current territorial form since 1959 and didn’t fully control the land which is now the 48 contiguous states until 1912. Germany in its current form has only been around 1990 (after re-unification); France is in its 5th incarnation as a Republic (1958), and several European nation-states in existence 30 years ago no longer exist, including Yugoslavia (died 1990) and Czechoslovakia (died 1993), birthing new nations from their ashes.

So the nation-state is hardly an eternal form. They come, they go, they form and re-form, but before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, they cannot be said to have existed at all. What came before were less organized systems of governments (usually kingdoms) attempting to exert control over land and very diverse people through direct force.

The nation-state significantly changed the world, and not just because it created borders and all the modern methods of state violence (police, bureaucracy, etc.).  More than anything, it changed the way people saw themselves, slowly replacing their local identifications with National identity.  For instance, before the birth of the French republic in 1792, there was no real sense of what it meant to be French (and anyway at that point, no more than half of “the French” actually spoke “French”).  Only through long decades of war and government repression of differences did the idea of being French actually take hold in France, and even still some (including Bretons and Corsicans) refuse to call themselves “French.”

The Nation-State, then, is not just a new political construct, but a new way of arranging people and defining their meaning and identity. This identity creates what Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities,” constructed connections between people who will never meet each other but see themselves as part of the same Nation.

In the United States, “American” may not mean the same thing to people on the far left or the far right, to a poor Black woman or an upper class white male, but it’s incredibly rare (except among First Nations peoples) to find anyone who actually refuses to allow themselves to be called an American. That shared national identity binds people who hate each other, binds oppressors and oppressed people together, around a shared sense of membership in the social construct called the Nation.

That definition in places like the United States appears fixed and unquestionable, but in the European nations from which the ancestors of white Americans came, national identity is not monolithic. France, for instance, has at least five other competing national identities within its European territory: Alsatian, Breton, Basque, Corsican,  and Occitanie. Add to this the colonized outremer departments such as Martinique and Guyane and you have many, many more non-French identities.

These identities are not just regional; a Corsican who tells you they are Corsican is not just telling you they live in Corse, they are telling you they do not live in France. Here where I live in Bretagne, it is the same: friends and strangers often vehemently correct me when I say I live in “France.” For them, France is an occupying force, an identity pushed upon them and one they are fully justified in rejecting as they please.

The United Kingdom has a similar internal division: for some Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, and Northern Irish folk, “British” is not just an identity they refuse to be defined with, but it is an enclosure and erasure of their cultural and ethnic identity.

One Nation Under the God-State

For the rulers of Nation-States like France and the United Kingdom, national identity is the primary means by which they are able to get the people they govern to not just identify with each other, but identify with the rulers themselves. The French leader Emmanuel Macron, for example, is the President of the French people. If the people Macron tries to rule do not see themselves as French, the laws he and his government create and enforce cannot adequately control people without using overt violence.

Similarly, Theresa May is the British Prime Minister: if the people in Scotland see themselves no longer British, the only way her government can control what the Scottish do is by direct force. Governments lose their appearance of legitimacy (and much of their power) when the people they are supposed to represent no longer identify as part of the imagined community they were elected to lead.

If you are a reader who considers themselves American, imagine how different your relationship to the United States government (and especially Trump) might be if you did not see yourself as an American. Say, for instance, that your parents were Irish and you see yourself more Irish than you do American, and you were living in an area where most of the people you knew spoke Irish and also didn’t see themselves as American. Your perception of the legitimacy of the United States would radically change.

There are already examples of this alternate identification in the United States. Some First Nations people refuse the label of American and point out that the United States is an occupation on their land, a settler-colonist government which is fully illegitimate. Also, some Black and Pan-African thinkers likewise identify more with Blackness or Africanness than with “American,” though these movements do not (by no fault of their own) have the same ongoing ancestral connection to land that First Nations peoples do and thus often have to reconstruct cultural identity.

From here, it should be easy to understand that what is happening in Catalonia is not some aberration in the history of humanity. And also it should be easy to understand why powerful Nation-States attempt to inculcate a singular constructed identity. But another objection is often raised against regional independence movements, particularly by liberals and some anarchists.

That objection? That Catalonia’s desire for independence is “nationalist,” and nationalism is fascist.

Fascist Nationalism vs. Autonomous Movements

Currently sweeping through Europe and the United States are far-right identitarian movements invoking cultural, ethnic, and racial ‘purity’ to fuel their desire for political power and a future without immigrants, Muslims, and anyone else besides themselves. In the United States, for instance, the so-called “alt-right” has marched openly carrying torches and chanting anti-semitic and anti-Black slogans. In Europe, groups like Bloc Identitaire, PEGIDA, Golden Dawn, Alternativ fur Deutschland, Front National, and others associated with the New Right/Nouvelle Droit have staged rallies, attacked refugees and anarchists, and even gained many seats in parliaments.

Besides their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish rhetoric, these groups have another thing in common: they argue for European states built around ethnic/racial/cultural identity. In this way, they may seem not much different from the movement in Catalonia (or Bretagne, or other places) but for one crucial difference: exclusion. For, while the European far-right tries to redefine the nation along identitarian lines, they also think those nations should only be composed of those identities.

That is, fascist nationalism is primarily exclusionary. On the other hand, the Catalonian independence movement has not said “Catalonia only for Catalonians.” In fact, part of the political platform of an independent Catalonia was the immediate granting of citizenship to immigrants of any ancestry who already had resident status.

More so, fascist nationalist groups have had a horrible time gaining support from independence and autonomous movements. The Front National headed by Marine Le Pen, for instance, did worse in Bretagne during the elections than in more culturally-assimilated (“French”) regions in France, while the far-left/communist candidate, Jean-Luc Melechon, did better in Bretagne than elsewhere.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to Americans unfamiliar with Spanish history, in Catalonia the far-right anti-immigrant/fascist groups are supporting Spanish national unity, not Catalonian independence. There are both historical and ideological reasons for the fascists to take Spain’s side: Spain was ruled by a fascist dictator from 1939 until 1975 (the longest fascist government in history). Spain wasn’t ‘liberated’ from fascism, either–Franco only left power because he died, and the successive ‘democratic’ governments since then never fully (or even partially) purged the fascist sympathisers from their ranks.

Ideologically, though, fascism has much more in common with (and much more to gain from) the Nation-State (and national identity) than it ever would from independence movements. Fascism is at its core both nationalist and statist: none of the far-right movements in Europe are calling for the abolishment of the State or the breaking up of States into distinct cultural regions. Instead, they demand stronger States which exclude, punish, and make war against people who are not like them.

Catalonia has no such plaform, nor does the other independence movement with which I am most familiar, the Breton nationalist movement (mostly made up of communists and anarchists anyway).

So we see here that Catalonia’s independence is both a threat to fascist identitiarian movements as well as the governments of liberal democratic states like the U.S., U.K, France, and Germany. And here’s where our discussion of nationalism finally leads us to the collusion of the Capital and the Nation-State, and why what Catalonia is doing threatens the entire order.

Capitalists and the Nation State: Symbiotic Parasites

There are two things which govern the mutual relationship between Capitalism and the Nation-State. The first is the Capitalist’s desire to gain wealth, avoid risk, and protect their investment. The second is the Nation-State’s need for political stability and wealth in the form of tax-income. These two imperatives function in tandem and make both the Nation-State and the Capitalist mutually parasitic on each other, and thus natural allies.

The first should seem self-evident: investors, corporations, and banks do not like losing money and do everything in their power not to do so.

Economic and long-term investment forecasts aren’t used by the rich the way that the average person uses a weather report. For us, whether it rains next week won’t change much of our lives–we may not plan that trip to the beach with friends or the outdoor barbecue, but unless we are farmers, we don’t significantly change our behavior. For the rich, however, the stability or volatility of a market determines whether or not they are going to keep investments or move them to another market.

Those decisions based on volatility or stability don’t just affect the wealth of the investors, of course. They also determine whether or not people keep their jobs, get to borrow money for houses, or even get to survive at all. So when an investor decides that a market is too risky and decides to move their money elsewhere, that economic chaos can cause political chaos too. Capitalists need to protect their investments (property, primarily) during such times, and also need to protect themselves from political actions from the poor they’ve harmed (riots, assassinations, worker-takeovers, etc.).

A Nation-State is the perfect entity to provide these things for the rich. Through its ability to control markets by laws, policing, and military actions, the Nation-State can guarantee to the capitalist a stable economic climate. Also through its police, judicial, and military powers, the Nation-State can punish people who react violently to decisions by Capitalists to move investments, cut wages, destroy neighborhoods (gentrification), or even outright steal from people.

On the other hand, the Nation-State needs taxes in order to function. Taxes on income and commerce are an easy and difficult-to-oppose means for the State to gain wealth, and thus the economic activity generated by capitalists directly benefits the Nation-State. The more economic activity, the more tax revenue–thus the hyper-consumerism that banks and corporations encourage becomes an addictive drug for the state.

Subsistence farmers or people who only work enough to survive and make most of their own goods cannot produce enough tax revenue for a government to fund massive military campaigns or even run a modern state. Likewise, if a citizenry becomes self-sufficient and self-governing, they rely on the state much less and even begin to oppose it. On the other hand, economically hyper-active citizenry often tend to associate their wealth with the leaders of nation-state itself and become more loyal to it (the way President Bill Clinton or Prime Minister Tony Blair were credited with their respective nation’s economic growth, for instance).

What happens when a Nation-State deviates from this mutual relationship, though?

One need only look at what happened to Argentina and other South American nations who elected leftist or left-leaning governments and platforms to find out. When Argentina in 2001 announced they would no longer pay back debt forced upon them by the International Monetary Fund, capitalists punished the people severely through a process called “Capital flight.” Basically, banks, corporations and large investors quickly pulled their money out of local economies all at once, leading to banks running out of money, millions of people suddenly losing jobs and access to credit, and entire cities suddenly going bankrupt.

So although the relationship between the Nation-State and the Capitalists is mutually-parasitic, the Capitalists are able to do much more damage to the other than the Nation-State can, unless the Nation-State itself seizes the wealth and property of the capitalists (which occurs only during communist take-overs of the State).

The Gates Are Open

Now, back to Catalonia. As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, Capital flight occurred immediately when the Catalonians voted for independence. Hundreds of Spanish corporations left or moved their headquarters, because to stay meant too much risk. Also, the Catalonian independence movement was heavily influenced by far-left politics, further suggesting to the capitalists that they might not get nearly the same profits in the region as they currently do under the conservative and neo-liberal Spanish government.

So both the Capitalists and the Spanish government have punished Catalonia for their desire to determine their own future. And here’s where a floodgate just opened that threatens to drown the entire capitalist world: we all just saw them do that.

Liberal Democracy (the system that the US, United Kingdom, and almost every European nation uses) has been able to function so well and fight off leftist and independence movements for so long because it veils the Nation-State’s collusion with the Capitalists better than any other system. It promises freedom and democracy to its people, but in Spain it literally beat up old women who’d just voted for autonomy and imprisoned democratically-elected Catalonian leaders.

It also claims to be opposed to fascism, but in Catalonia the conservative Spanish government and the “socialist” minority party are doing exactly what the fascists want. Likewise, the widespread condemnation of Catalonia’s independence from the leaders of every other large Liberal Democratic nation have also revealed themselves to be against democracy and in agreement with the fascist movements in their own countries.

The entire world just watched this happen, especially every other independence movement. We have all watched what the Nation-State and the Capitalists will do together to stop anyone who tries to determine their own future. The Scots saw this, as did the Welsh. The Bretons saw this, as did the Basque and the Corsicans.

So, too, did everyone who was under the illusion that the Nation-State is inviolable and eternal, that governments can protect us from the capitalists and that capitalism was not invested in the authoritarianism of the Nation-State. They now know their governments and capitalist class are all ultimately on the same side as the fascists.

Catalonia has opened a flood-gate. Whether or not they succeed, the rushing waters cannot be held back.

What comes next in the world is uncertain. Which groups inspired by what Catalonia has done will try next? Which groups will succeed? And what beautiful alliances will begin to form between all these apparently disparate movements across the world? Will we see Bretons and Scots and the Basque meeting together with First Nations people, co-ordinating mutual aid and international solidarity between their movements?

Or will we see the fascists seize this moment, using the panic of the governments of the world to manifest their dreams of homogenous, exclusive, authoritarian Nation States?

I don’t know. When I think on Walter Benjamin’s last journal entry in Catalonia before he killed himself, that quote from Kafka, I imagine those who’ve put their hope in this first full attack on Spain seeing a glimpse of all the future movements that will arise.

If Catalonia fails, they too may find themselves penning those same words: “There is plenty of hope, but not for us.”


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.


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Heretics

The Witch

On a cold Sunday evening a few months ago, I left the warmth of my room and my lover’s side, threw a few books into my bag, and took a bus north to meet The Witch.

We’d corresponded a few times before but had never met in person. That happens often when you are a writer–you read someone’s words, you strike up a conversation with them, and talk for quite awhile without embodied relation. So many of the writers I enjoy live in far-flung lands, as do many of the friends I’ve made through my writing, yet we rarely meet. But The Witch was in town for a very brief stay, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see what had gotten so many others enraged at her existence.

InstagramCapture_678e3600-2c50-4484-8125-a2502bc22e3bThe Witch had written something about a goddess, and it made a few people very, very angry.

Many of those people were writers whom I generally thought highly of, who’d positioned themselves as authorities on that particular goddess. But Authority doesn’t like heresy, and the words of the Witch were heresy, and they decided she needed to be stopped.

The attacks mounted against her. Some said she was an idiot, others claimed she had no Authority to speak about that goddess. Others joined in, perhaps eager to appear loyal to the authorities, or perhaps just eager to join in the pogrom.

I really wanted to meet this Witch. The attacks on her writing had been so fierce that her ability to weather them made me suspect she possessed some intense magic. After all, the people who’d assaulted her public presence were quite formidable. Authors of books on that same goddess, powerful priests or shamans with secret initiations, charismatic men claiming endless years of training –the Witch’s power was certainly at least equal to theirs, if her words warranted so many attacks.

prisonsI entered the coffee shop and saw her sitting in a corner by the window. It was her, I was certain, but it was hardly who they thought she was. She had power, definitely, but not the sort that they had.

I wanted to laugh at myself for believing the fear of others, but I also wanted to cry.  Seeing her there, suddenly understanding what the war against her heresy had really been about felt like a death.

What particularly struck me, sitting across from The Witch in this cafe, was how different she looked from her critics. She was diminutive, almost elfish, Soft-spoken, a bit timid, but evincing exactly the sort of embodied power I’ve come to notice in people who relate with gods and the land. She didn’t dress the part of a priestess of a powerful deity; she dressed the part of a highly-literate, well-centered, deeply-embodied woman who had nothing to prove to the world, who just wanted to write about the really awesome experiences she was having with gods.

Also, I was in awe with her awe. A lightness of being surrounded her, a curiousity, a wonder unmarred by the cynicism and fundamental certainty of those who’d attacked her. That her open heart remained open despite the onslaught, the smears, and the violence marshaled against her ideas proved to me more than anything that she was, indeed, the Witch they had so feared.

We talked for an hour, this beautiful, timid, bookish, soft-spoken and graceful woman. I drank a latte despite the hour, she had peppermint tea. She had an interview the next morning for a librarian position at a University, and so we talked about books, and Seattle, and the city where she lived, and then I finally admitted the perceptual jolt I experienced when I finally saw her in person.

“That was awful,” she said, regarding the relentless attacks. “I had to stop looking at the internet for awhile, and wanted to stop writing.”

What we didn’t talk about was the other thing those priests attacked her for. The Witch was also a Jew, and as some stated she had no ancestral right to talk about her goddess because of this, very few defended her.

The Jew

InstagramCapture_eed3f908-ab7a-4bcd-a50d-f765f504a5ab Alley Valkyrie and I sat at the base of a Cork Oak in the Pyrenees, grateful for the unexpected cold beneath its branches. Along the Mediterranean side of those mountains, Cork Oak clings to ledges and cliffs, and where they stand they create a shadow deeply welcome in the early summer heat of southern France. The sun shines strongly, baking the skin and the bare rocks, but under the Cork Oaks the temperature drops almost 20 degrees, With the wind which whips through the passes, it can actually get quite cold.

We were glad of it, sweaty and overheated from the strong sun searing through our skin as we picked our way over loose rocks. We were following Le Chemin Walter Benjamin, an old smuggler’s path through the Pyrenees between France and Spain renamed for the most famous person to follow that path.

Walter Benjamin was a mystic, a Marxist theorist, a trained astrologer, and the bane of several Authoritarian regimes because of his theories on history. Also, he was a Jew.

Benjamin is responsible for two revolutionary–and thus dangerous–ideas. The first is that of the Jetztzeit, the mystical moment which coalesces at some point in time where the direction of the world can change. It’s the ‘revolutionary moment,’ before which the world is one thing and after which, if the moment is recognized and acted in, the world is an entirely other thing.

Importantly, the Jetztzeit is a moment recognized best not by political theorists or authoritarian regimes, but by the poets, the artists, and the bardic current in any social struggle. That is, only those with a mystical awareness can see in the shifting tide the point at which the act can change the world.

The Jetztzeit, then, is the moment of the heretics.

While much Marxist and Anarchist thought at the time sought to distance itself from mysticism, Walter Benjamin danced between those worlds and others, or the Other.  And regarding that Other is the other concept for which Benjamin is best known, the “Angel of History”:

240px-Klee,_paul,_angelus_novus,_1920A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Benjamin saw plenty of wreckage in his lifetime. He was friends with the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt (another whose ideas I use a lot in my writing), and both watched the relentless pile-up of carnage in Europe as war broke out. They were together in the city of Marseille as France unsuccessfully fought the German advance. As France fell to the Nazis, the Vichy government forbade exit permits from the country for Jews, trapping him and many others.

Benjamin had received a visa for the United States and had hoped to escape there. Because he could not leave from a French port, the only way to do make the voyage would be to travel through the mountainous regions of Spain (by then fully ruled by Fascist dictator General Franco) to Portugal, where he could take a boat across the Atlantic.

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Banyuls-Sur-Mer from Le Chemin Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin left Marseilles for a small town on the border with Spain called Banyuls-sur-Mer. Some communists knew of a route across the mountains to the Spanish town of Portbou, earlier used by leftists in Spain to escape the Fascist round-ups of anarchists.

That’s why Alley and I were on that mountain. We left Banyuls-sur-Mer in the early afternoon and followed his route, past massive Heather, Juniper, Broom and Cork Oak, across loose scree and sudden explosions of wildflowers.

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InstagramCapture_895ca90a-0883-42ff-918e-81485b9e1301Every guide had stated it was a four hour, 7 kilometer hike across the Pyrenees.  Every guide had lied. It’s 4 hours and 7 kilometers to the top of the mountain. We didn’t know it at the time, but It’s another 7 kilometers and three more hours to the end of the trail in the Catalonian town of Portbou.

We’d already drank most of the several liters of water we’d brought with us. We had to catch a train the 50 kilometers back to our campsite in a few hours. We maybe should have turned back at that point. But Walter Benjamin had made that journey as a 48 year old man with a severe heart condition, fleeing from the Nazis with a large suitcase containing his most prized possession, a completed manuscript which did not survive any longer than he did.

It seemed hopeless for us to get there on time, but it had been more hopeless for him, so we continued.

Where really could he have found sanctuary? His Marxism made him an enemy of many in Francoist Spain, his anarchist leanings made him an enemy of Stalin, his Jewishness made him an enemy in France and Germany. Had he even made it somehow through Spain to Portugal, entry into the United States was hardly a guarantee even with a visa, especially because he was a Marxist. No other country in the world has a longer history of violent suppression of Marxist and Anarchist thought. It was no country for heretics.

Walter Benjamin died when he arrived the day after he arrived in Portbou. The Fascist government in Spain had just passed a law that day which would require him to return to France. He could not escape, and he died in his hotel room, possibly of an overdose, possibly by assassination from Stalinists or the Gestapo.

Quoting Kafka on his last day, Benjamin wrote in his journal:

“There is plenty of hope, but not for us.”

I think every heretic has been so hopeless. I was, until I met the Anarchists.

The Anarchists & The Queers

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A spring along Le Chemin Walter Benjamin

I’m drunk and fucking happy. He’s in my arms, soaking through my skin. I can taste his soul, I’m drinking in his magic. The world has fallen away, or become more world, our bodies locked, our jaws locked in feral mauling. All is passion, all is joy.

We’re in Rennes, France, outside of an anarchist bar. I’d just met my companion a few days before, an anarchist witch like myself, and gay, and hot. He’d taken me the night before to this bar, we were now there with Alley, sitting outside with Breton anarchists laughing, drinking, playing music, discussing revolution and magic and the rise of Fascism in France and America.

Things are bad for leftists everywhere, and really awful for anarchists. In Rennes, though, even as their hope dwindles, Alley and I could see how strong they still are. That day was gay pride, and the government had forbidden demonstrations to punish the leftists. But instead of obeying the Authority of the government, the gays marched anyway, supported by large leftist trade unions and anarchists.

Here, for at least a little while longer, heretics stand together.

Dionysos Rennes
Anarchist graffiti on a church in Rennes, France

My companion and I were being a bit…exhibitionist, perhaps. Never in the US had I felt so comfortable with another man on the street, nor had I ever felt that I was amongst so many people accepting of our passion.

But then I heard from behind us:

“Pédé.”

 

Faggot.

I turned to look at them, three men walking by, disgusted by our heresy. How could two men do such things with their bodies? How could others tolerate such profaning of the sacred? I rolled up my sleeves. I didn’t have my passport on me, I knew what would happen if I got arrested for fighting these men, but I didn’t care. And I knew that in France, just like every other country in the world, Authority does not give a shit for sexual heretics.

But just as I steeled myself, ready to defend my world, I watched all the people around me stand and shout.

I was, after all, sitting at an anarchist bar.

What happened after was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my entire life. The homophobes hurled bottles at us, glass shattering at our feet. I was still ready to fight, but before I could even move eight men tore after them faster than I could ever hope to run.

The attackers fled, running just as fast, terrified of what happens when heretics defend each other, stand together against those who would stamp them out.

The Pagans

How tame we have become. How polite about our witchcraft. In our desire to harm none we have become harmless…How much have the elders sold us out, genuflecting to the academy, the establishment, the tabloid press. In return for this bargain we have gained precisely nothing…

…I will not be part of this process, because to do so is to be complicit with the very forces that are destroying all life on earth. It is time for Witchcraft not to choose, but to remember which side it is on in this struggle.

Peter Grey, “Rewilding Witchcraft”

When Gods&Radicals dared confront Fascist and Authoritarian sympathies within Paganism & Polytheism, we got a chance to see precisely the hatred that Authority has for heretics.

A former leader of a Druid tradition warned of the death of Paganism because of our challenge to self-proclaimed elders squatting on their tilting thrones. Polytheist leaders called me and others enemies of the gods and Marxist infiltrators, declaring crusades against the heretics threatening their Authority over the gods, over witchcraft, over druidry, over the sacred. Someone bought the URL’s of my name to sabotage my identity, others called for boycotts, some made threats against supporters of Gods&Radicals and its writers…all because we challenged their Authority.

But while white American Pagans and Polytheists try to protect their petty empires from heretics, the world around us is in a greater conflict.

Capitalism is confronting a crisis of its own making. Climate change is undeniable, mass extinctions increasing. Capitalists know they are the cause, and are starting to realize that the heretics know this too.

When the rich are threatened, they rely on Authority to sustain it. And we don’t need magical sight to see how governments everywhere have tightened their control of their citizens, even as resistance against their hired thugs and murderers explodes in increasing fury. The uprisings of Baltimore and Ferguson in the United States are siblings of the uprisings now in Europe, and on both sides of the ocean Authority tries to displace that rage, strengthening the Nationalist and Fascist tendencies I warned about.

Capitalism needs us to be exhausted, terrified, eager to work for little, eager to fill our worlds with products to replace what it has stolen from us. It needs us to ignore the damage it does to our lives, to nature, to the sacred. And it needs us obedient, docile, afraid to resist, eager to blame whatever scapegoat is puts before us.

It needs us to stop questioning its Authority, and it needs us to hate the heretics who dare suggest otherwise.

Once, Paganism and Witchcraft dared challenge Authority. Once, Pagans and witches knew who they were, enemies of the religion of Capitalism. Once, we knew the weapons we held in our hands and the power of our magic.

Once, we were also heretics.

It’s time to be heretics again.

The Witch I mentioned at the beginning of this essay survived all the attacks against her, becoming stronger as those who who tried to silence her were shown for the thugs they were. Walter Benjamin did not survive, but the heresies he bore into the world are a foundation for everything I write. And in watching a group of anarchists show love for the desire of two gay punk witches against thugs, I’ve seen the seeds of the revolution.

Authority and Capitalists need us to doubt ourselves. They need us to think we cannot experience the world without them, cannot think for ourselves, cannot do for ourselves. They need us to fear death, to fear each other, to fear ourselves.

But it is they who should fear us.

They should fear our magic and our will. They should fear our ability to create a world without them, to create a world where there is no place for Authority or Capital, no place for the rich, no place for the state, no place for the Fascist or the homophobe, no place for the racist or the anti-Semite.

They should fear such heresy.

And they will.


Rhyd Wildermuth

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