Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Irrational Fear of Death

Someday, you’re going to die.

Yes, you.

Maybe it will be something sudden.  You’ll be crossing a bridge, walking your bike with the pedestrian light, and a drunk driver will whip through the intersection, not notice the blinking light, and you’ll be Humpty Dumpty.

Maybe it will be something longer.  Cancer, maybe.  Cancer gets lots of people.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually go the distance.  Maybe you’ll avoid all the accidents, not get cancer, not get Alzheimer’s.  Maybe it will be old age that gets you.  You’ll be a hundred and ten.  You’ll have arthritis and bad bowels and all your faculties, but a tiny blood vessel in your brain will explode and you’ll have a stroke and be dead before you hit the floor.

And guess what?  There’s not a single fucking thing you can do about it.

Nothing.  NO-thing.  No amount of hand cream or botox or face lifts will save you.  Death even got Joan Rivers in the end.

No amount of positive thinking will protect you.  Wayne Dyer, who was bragging in an audiobook I was listening to about how it had been twenty years since he got a cold, got cancer.  He’s still with us, but how long before it comes back?

No amount of exercise will stop it.  Jim Fixx died of a heart attack — while running!

So knock it off.

Knock off all the silly superstitious bullshit that you think is going to protect you.

Stop hiding all the old and the broken people away where you don’t have to look at them.

Stop worrying about what other people eat because you’re jealous, since you can’t bring yourself to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger without guilt.

Stop with the Power of Positive Thinking and the Secret.  Stop with the victim-blaming.  Stop with pretending that if you just colour inside the lines, it won’t happen to you.

Because it will.  If not now, then later, and there’s no amount of magic that is going to protect you.  No one has achieved immortality through magic yet, except maybe St. Germaine.

"Cow Skull" by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.
“Cow Skull” by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.

So why let it bother you?

Okay, you might live a little longer if you don’t eat burgers all the time.  But one cheeseburger really will not hurt you that much.

Old age isn’t a disease.  Hiding and marginalizing the old will not prevent you from getting old.  It’s not catching; it’s already programmed into your DNA.  Everything breaks down in the flesh.  Physical bodies cannot last.

If you develop positive thinking, life might be more fulfilling because you will not dwell on unhappiness.  But it will not prevent bad things from happening to you.

More than that, losing your irrational fear of death will make you a more compassionate person.

If you don’t try to tell yourself that the homeless guy on the street corner just isn’t thinking positively enough, maybe you’ll give him some spare change.  Maybe you’ll buy him one of those hamburgers you can’t bring yourself to eat.  Maybe you’ll even actually talk to him, and you’ll learn his name is Joe and he’s a Desert Storm vet with PTSD who was abandoned by Veterans Services because they don’t want to admit that Gulf War Syndrome is a thing and he drinks so he can sleep.

If you don’t think that old age is a disease that you might catch, maybe you’ll spend some time with older people.  And you’d be amazed at what you can learn when the past is something that happened to someone in your monkeysphere and not something you read about on the internet.  If you don’t try to tell yourself that younger people are more valid than older people, maybe you’ll glean some wisdom because nothing is new under the sun and likelihood is that your original, “innovative solution” has been tried before.The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The irrational fear of death is what keeps us from getting involved when we should.  It’s what stops us from standing up against wrongdoing; because, after all, maybe someone will target us if we say something.  It’s what keeps us from caring when caring matters.  Easier to try to believe there’s a reason why one person is lucky and one isn’t.  Why some of us constantly struggle and others have everything handed to them on a plate.  Why one person dies from choking on a chicken bone in their soup and another lives through being struck by lightning with no permanent damage.

But don’t you believe it!  There is no reason.  Sometimes, bad shit just happens to good people.  And sometimes, good shit just happens to bad people too.  No one’s keeping score.  There’s no brownie point system.  Impressing whatever god you believe in will not result in earthly rewards, nor protect you from harm because you’ve earned enough good karma points.

So, since that’s something you can’t control, stop letting it control you.

Let it go!  Relax!  Have fun every once in a while!  Take risks!  Dare!  Because life is more fun when you’re not worrying about how it’s going to end.  And love is easier when you’re not afraid of people.

Faith & Politics in Paganism

Public domain image.

Public domain image.

Should we link our politics and our faith?  This is a question that is beginning to be asked in our community.  Some of that has to do with the stir that Gods & Radicals has created, especially the recent controversy.

I try to stay out of online bickering, and when I feel I must get involved I try to do it in the form of a column so that we can have a mature, intelligent debate rather than a bunch of back-biting, pot-stirring and name-calling, with the usual wake of vultures showing up to cannibalize whomever looks weakest for their own self-glorification through gossip.  Hard experience has taught me that wading in to the mix while the shit is still flying is never helpful.  But even I was drawn partway into this one.  I guess it’s because it’s such an emotional issue for me.  It’s a button-pusher, and my buttons were pushed.

Sometimes that’s a good thing.  It makes you consider where it is that you really stand on important issues, and why; or it forces you to confront all those shadowy sub-motivations and personal issues that you bury under the subconscious muck.  For me it did both.

One thing that made me very . . . I won’t say angry, but perhaps exasperated is the correct word . . . was the accusation leveled against the writers of G&R that we put our politics before our faith.  That couldn’t be more wrong, and I felt inspired to explain why.

Religion Informs Culture

There is a movement not to use the singular word “community” to describe us Pagans, because we don’t really have one.  That’s true.  But we do have a distinct Pagan culture.  Anthropologists who study us refer to it as a “sub-culture” (which we don’t like, because we’re too proud to be “sub-anything,”) or a “counterculture” (which isn’t exactly true; most of us aren’t directly opposed to the culture we live in, we just don’t entirely agree with it.)

The separation of church and state is something Americans hold as an unalienable right.  Weirdly, you are kind of alone in the world.  Most other countries, even we Canadians, your closest neighbours and probably closest to you culturally, don’t quite go that far.  Culture is something we talk about as being an important force.  Culture is an issue that our bilingual country, which was founded on, and continues to grow by, the juxtaposition of three distinct cultural aspects — Anglophone, Francophone, and First Nations (note the plural) — has had to be hyper-aware of since our founding.

We do believe in the principle of not enforcing a religion through the mechanism of the state.  Our Charter of Rights & Freedoms (our Constitution) protects freedom of religion.  We Canadians are strong supporters of that right and we try to accompany those rights with equal respect (which aren’t quite the same thing).

But religion is also a part of culture.  The Quebec court systems and legislature in many cases still carry crucifixes on their walls, because when they joined Canada, Quebec was a distinct French Catholic culture living under English Protestant rule.  Much of the religious element is moot now in the wake of what was called the Quiet Revolution, which happened in the mid-seventies.  The Catholic church was a significant part of everyone’s life in Quebec, running most social services and so forth — until, all of a sudden, they weren’t, and much of that became secularized.  But there are remnants.  For instance, property still passes to the eldest son, at least in part, after a man who owned it dies, rather than entirely into the hands of his widow.

This distinct Francophone culture ultimately culminated in a long series of Constitutional crises and an endless series of referendums, a strong Quebec Sovereignty movement and a federal political party whose entire goal was Sovereignty for Quebec.  There were arguments and a lot of bitterness on both sides, but I think we seemed to have settled into an uneasy peace that is becoming easier with each passing year.

However, the triumvirate of religion, culture and politics doesn’t have to be a negative thing.  That Anglophone-Francophone cultural tension is part of what makes Canada so unique.  It teaches us to have a broader appreciation for cultural differences in general and to create a truly beautiful fusion in many places.  And we’re learning how to do it better.  For instance, many First Nations incorporate their spiritual practices into their social services and decision-making processes.  They believe that this helps to create a sense of community which makes it easier to come together on divisive issues.  Furthermore, many official federal and provincial functions are beginning to include elements of First Nations’ ceremonies.  I think this is a positive trend and I’d like to see more of the cooperative decision-making elements of some of our most politically powerful First Nations included as well.

This culturally diverse history is why we can open our arms to 25,000 Syrian refugees without batting an eye, knowing they will bring their own unique colours to our mosaic.

Ethics

Much of the American and Canadian judicial system is founded in English Protestant Christianity.  Our system believes in “right” and “wrong,” and it punishes what it sees as wrongdoing.  The enforcement of concepts of good and evil is an Abrahamic concept and you probably don’t even think about this, since you grew up in this culture and despite the efforts of the more extreme of us to throw off that yoke, it still influences our behaviour and perhaps always will.  Christian ethics also led them to found the very first hospitals and pensions for widows and orphans — institutions no one but the most dedicated libertarian or fascist would argue against now.

Yet Protestant Christianity has a powerful Humanist influence, which culminates in trying to balance the needs of the state with the rights of the individual.  In a way, both Paganism and Atheism are simply following the reasoning of Protestant ideas — human rights, personal dignity, and individual relationship with the Divine — to their ultimate conclusions.  (Please note that I do not say “logical” conclusions.  Faith, by its nature, is illogical and is something we engage with emotionally and then justify through reason.  At least, that’s what I think.)

Ethics are, perhaps, the most significant influence that religion can have upon us.   This is something we Pagans tend to be a bit fuzzy on.  We’re a new religion (yes, even the Reconstructionists) and so we are still trying to figure this stuff out as we go.  Most of us would say that the Christian ethic simply didn’t work for us and that was the impetus that drove us into this crazy patchwork quilt of a community.  Many of us, if pressed, would say that we have no dogma at all.  We are liars, but at least we are subconscious liars.  It’s our genuine belief, not an intentional falsehood, and I think it’s based in a misunderstanding of what dogma actually is.  Kind of like when people say they’re not religious because they don’t believe in Jesus.

Many of the definitions of “dogma” don’t fit, including anything that is declared, proclaimed or handed down.  But as Brendan Myers once tried to explain to people in a lecture I attended, that very thing is dogmatic!  Part of the Pagan dogma — one of our most “settled or established opinions, beliefs, or principles” — is that no one has the right to act as an authority for the whole group on anything, ever.

Where am I going with all of this?  I’m suggesting that Paganism does, indeed, have some powerful dogma that affects our ethics.  Like, for example, a strong ethic of personal rights and freedoms.  A slightly less strong ethic of personal responsibility.  I have written about my belief that the Charge of the Goddess is a series of ethical commandments that is at least as important as the Rede, if not more so.  And I’ve also written about my belief that the Rede is not nearly such a black-and-white, namby pamby ethical code as you may have been led to believe. Other Pagan faiths have their own liturgies and their own codes of ethics, such as the Nine Noble Virtues, and these will dictate ethical choices just as surely as mine do.

Deities Inform Your Politics

Polytheistic faiths have an additional factor that influences these things, and that is the individual Deities we choose to follow (or Who choose us) will also influence our ethics and our priorities, and thus, our politics.  A devotee of Coyote or Loki is probably a bit of a shit-disturber, coming from the understanding that sometimes the wisdom of the Fool and the Trickster is needed to make us question ourselves and take us down a peg.  A devotee of Apollo, on the other hand, is going to resent anything that breaks the harmonious order.  Neither side is wrong, and both are needed, but they will clash in places and as Pagans, we must simply accept this as part of our reality.

alley-fist

A Personal Perspective

Winding this discussion in from the wide perspective to the personal, I am a Wiccan, so for me there are some definite ethical guidelines–contained within the smattering of liturgy we have–that I feel I should observe.  I say “guidelines” because individual interpretation and understanding is also one of those ethical guidelines.

One of these ethics is an abhorance of slavery.  “You shall be free from slavery,” my Goddess(es) says, and so I must believe, since Her “law is love unto all beings,” that She would want me to fight for the freedom of all.

There’s more to it than that, but a lot of these things intersect.  Environmentalism comes from a love of the earth and its creatures and a desire that we might all be free to enjoy the earth’s bounty.  My sex positivity and my staunch defense of all rights to choose in reproduction, relationship and personal expression are bound up in a combination of that freedom from slavery principle, love unto all beings, and the exhortation to sing, feast, dance, make music and love, and the need for beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence.

As a result of all of that, I feel I must defend the oppressed.  Oppression can be expressed socially, politically, militarily, or economically.  It is my understanding that these things are abhorrent to my Goddess, and abhorrent to me, that drives me to take a stand against them.

Culturally, as a Pagan I have allies.  Culturally, Pagans of various stripes, but perhaps none more so than the Women’s Spirituality Movement, have a long history of forming peaceful but outspoken opposition to oppression.  This has filtered over into the whole community and in particular, a lot of Polytheists seem to be on board.  It makes much more sense for me to support the work of my allies in this complex and wearying fight, driven by my religious ethics, than to do it alone.  I get more done that way.  And I get encouragement when I need it.  I don’t always agree one hundred percent with everyone who writes for Gods & Radicals.  But dammit, they’re doing something.  And I would answer their critics with, “and what are you doing?”

Spiritually, I also believe I have a calling to do this work.  I have written before about how Diana accepted my offer to pray to Her before I realized what that really meant.  At the time, I was connecting to the Maiden Warrior Goddess in the Moon Whose name I had been given.  I believed in feminism and the wild and its preservation and I had no interest in sex whatsoever, so Her Maidenhood was attractive to me.

But over time that relationship changed.  I learned, as I began to realize my bisexuality, about Diana’s preference for the company of women.  And about Her love of the occasional man who was especially worthy of Her attentions.  I discovered Women’s Spirituality then and a spiritual impetus to support my desires for equality.

And then, when I had finally reconciled my sexuality and the idea of the holiness of sex, when I had accepted a path to become a High Priestess in the way that a Catholic might have accepted a calling to become a nun, I discovered Diana, Queen of the Witches, Mistress of all Sorceries, seducer of Her brother, Lucifer.  She and Lucifer gave the world a daughter, Aradia.  She was sent to the world to teach witchcraft to the masses and liberate the oppressed.  Hence, the choice of my Craft name.

I suppose, as my awareness of politics has grown, I have realized that in many ways, it is a part of my spiritual calling and the oaths I have sworn to become involved in politics.  It is my sacred duty to defend the underdog, to raise up the powerless, and to oppose oppression wherever I see it.  And if you haven’t read Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, the “oppressors” that Aradia led Her followers against in the myth were the Church and wealthy landowners.  In other words, the 1% of their time.

I won’t disagree that there are drawbacks to this stance.  In many cases I can’t just “go along to get along.”  I can’t keep my mouth shut.  It’s like a Bard’s Tongue; silence for too long will just cause blunt, tactless statements to slip out.  Sometimes I have to point out elephants in living rooms.

Some people would rather not have to confront a lot of these issues.  I don’t blame them; it’s tiring and I don’t always have the energy for it either.  I hate fighting.  But sometimes I have to.  If I don’t, who will?

There are places where politics and faith must not mix; for example, a Pagan conference, or a Pagan Pride Day.  I once chastised someone for posting information about an environmentalist rally on the local Pagan Pride list (which I was moderating).  I was intending to go to that rally myself, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was that it was presumptuous to assume that other Pagans shared that political view.

But the blogosphere is not one of those places.  Indeed, I would argue that this is the very place to discuss and debate politics, faith, spirituality and ethics.  The blogsophere is the modern Pagan Agora.  If you don’t want to be part of that, you’re welcome not to.  But you can expect that I — that we — are not going away any time soon.

*Note – When I read back the article I realized it sounded like I had a negative opinion of the Francophone-Anglophone cultural juxtaposition in Canada.  Nothing could be further from the truth, so I expanded that paragraph.  Also, I added a link to a great article that Steve Posch wrote today about Aradia and the opposition against slavery.


Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia Author 1I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.


 

Gods&Radicals is not just a site of beautiful resistance, but also a publisher of A Beautiful Resistance! Our second issue is out soon, and there’s still time to pre-order or subscribe. You may also like  A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer (featured above).

Editorial: Beyond Resistance

 

On one of the last nights of a four-month exile in the spirit-drenched marshlands of Eugene, Oregon, Alley Valkyrie and I sat under a sky full of stars, sitting across from each other around a fire, sipping thick hot cocoa and talking about the state of the world.

We’d only just met a few months before, and our friendship had been automatic.  You know, the awesome sort that feels like you’re travelers from the same country meeting in a foreign land, relieved to find someone who shared the same language.

We’d both spent many years living in spaces I call ‘between-the-walls,’ dwelling in liminal places within–but also outside–society, identifying more with the living ghosts of humanity and the whispering spirits of the past than with the bright-yet-pallid pretense of the ‘modern’ and ‘the future.’  Both of us Pagans, both anarchists and also Marxists, speaking to the same sorts of gods and refusing to look away from the same sorts of current apocalypse that most people–pagans or otherwise–are happy to ignore.

And we’d talk often, particularly that night around the fire, about what we’d both noticed about Paganism, its radical existence in a world that would deny the truth of magic and gods, and about that particularly odd, constipated silence of other Pagans regarding questions of the political. For myself, at least, it’d been precisely this deafening silence that made meeting and then becoming fast friends with Alley so synchronous.  What she and I seemed to notice about the world was precisely what no other Pagans seemed to be talking about.

Like, really–why wasn’t anyone talking about Capitalism? And why had Paganism begun pretending to be non-political?

All Quiet on the Pagan Front

It wasn’t, of course, that ‘no-one’ was. We’d both read Peter Grey’s work, and Silvia Federici’s book.  And we knew other Pagans who noticed what we had, but few of them had much of a voice or influence.  Instead, narratives about the gods and magic seemed dominated by a weak sort of new-age liberalism and an almost plastic, glossy sheen over what we’re all on about.  There were scores of blogs and books where you could find information on how to purchase the ideal wand or how to get the spirits to help you find a job, ways to bring ‘The Goddess” into your everyday suburban life or how to find your spirit animal, how to bake magical desserts or how to schedule a Sabbat around the Superbowl.

But almost nothing was being written about the state of the world, the destruction of the environment, the abject poverty on the sidewalks of every American city, or our connections to it.  It seemed, almost, that Pagans had begun to hide in a fantasy world, perhaps fleeing the hideous weight of all the world’s problems, a creeping denialism and a paralysed theology.

Perusing any of the major Pagan-themed sites yielded a depressing dearth of any talk of intersections between the world of gods, spirits, and magic and the world in which the humans interacting with them actually lived.  And we were certain we weren’t the only ones looking for such things, and noticing this silence.

In June of 2013, almost exactly the time we sat around that last fire before both leaving Eugene, Peter Grey published his essay Rewilding Witchcraft. It seemed like a summons, a clarion call, a war cry from the dying earth, precisely what we’d been on about, what we’d been desperately wishing others would say:

Our elders have failed us, they have not provided leadership, they have not provided counsel, they have been silent and compliant in the face of power.

They have said nothing on fracking, climate collapse, the extinction crisis and done even less. The old have, for the most part, betrayed the young. This is as true of witchcraft as it is of our wider culture.

It is therefore down to us as individuals to take our lead from the only source of initiation, living spirit, and through it embody the new witchcraft.

We must become a witchcraft with a renewed sense of meaning and purpose, of responsibility to the land which is in crisis, or we are nothing more than consumers of the earth which will all too soon eat of us.

The extreme popularity of his essay amongst the more radical-leaning (and more interesting) folks we knew–as well as some angry dismissals from ‘established’ leaders–had the same affect for me as meeting Alley Valkyrie had.  Not only were we not alone, but we saw there was a desperate desire to talk about this stuff, to ask the questions our leaders stopped asking.

The Unasked Question

Gods&Radicals started with a question, actually. I’m not sure which of us asked it, maybe me, because Alley’s the wiser one.  “Wanna talk to Pagans about Capitalism with me?”  And I think she answered (or maybe I answered),

‘um..sure.”

So this weekend, last year, Alley and I rushed into a startlingly-packed and sweltering room to give a presentation we titled “Gods&Radicals.” We were fashionably late (she’s often fashionable, we’re both usually late), and we had to push our way into the room.

For our presentation, we’d been given the smallest room available at the convention. We heard later there’d been huge reticence to even allow our presentation. What’s politics got to with Paganism anyway? And who cares about Capitalism?

At least 75 people cared, three times the legal capacity of the room. And more, we found out later: people listened from the hallway, and many people just couldn’t hear from outside. People were practically sitting on top of each other on the floor. Alley and I had to sit atop a counter. I think I may have accidentally had my foot on someone’s shoulder for part of the presentation.

We were pretty awed. I have few heroes left, but some of them were in the room with us, listening to our presentation, wanting to hear what we had to say. I’ll admit–I’m a bit of a fanboy and never thought I’d take questions from Starhawk or T. Thorn Coyle.

Heady and inspired as all get out from the experience, and maybe a little inebriated (it was also my birthday, after all), I asked Alley:

“hey–what if we start a website where we talk about this stuff? And get others to talk about it too?”

And she said, “yup,” and so we did.

We put out the call the next week and were inundated by emails from people excited about the idea, hoping to write with us. By the time we posted our first essay (by Jason Waters), we’d had thirty people signed up as writers.  And soon after, we were offered a $1000 donation, and because we didn’t know what to do with it, Alley, Syren Nagakyrie, Lisha Sterling, and I founded Gods&Radicals as a non-profit, anti-capitalist Pagan publisher.

That’s the story of how we got started, and also part of the story of why we exist.

Inherently Political

But more of why we exist is this: for too long, we Pagans (by which I mean all the various ‘Pagan/Heathen/Witchcraft/Polytheist traditions) had forgotten the inescapable fact that what we are all doing is inherently political.

In the United States, and to some degree in other Capitalist Democracies, we’ve come to associate politics exclusively with government.  Lawmakers, presidents. ideologies and parties are ‘political,’ while the rest of us are just normal citizens attempting to go about our daily lives without too much interference. Being ‘political’ is something we do during elections, or something angry people do when they are upset things aren’t the way they prefer them to be.

One of the initial criticisms I heard, often from the same people who dismissed Rewilding Witchcraft and minimize the connection between witchcraft and resistance to tyranny, is that our work is ‘politicizing’ Paganism or even ‘colonizing polytheism with anti-capitalism.’  But this is the same complaint any dominant group has against those who rock the boat, point out the emperor is ass-naked, or otherwise disturbs the serene veneer of middle-class society. 

It’s a call for complicity. It’s a demand that we ignore how much violence–political and economic–is required to get the coal and oil that make our cars and computers work. That violence is against people, and it’s against nature, and to be a-political is to give consent.

Or as Peter Grey says in Apocalyptic Witchcraft:

I have heard it said that a land wight does not care about the politics of who summons it. This is a glib statement.

It is politics which enables the destruction of the very land which the wight stands guard over.

Man is a political animal, those who say that they are outside of, or above, politics are the esotericists whose clean hands are washed in the blood of those who have no choice but to put their hands in the machinery.

Politics is not optional for First Nations, women, queers, blacks, or any of the other slave classes. Abstention is a position of privilege which aids the pattern of destruction, arguing only for our impotence.

Politics is merely power relations, how people are influenced or prevented, how people are made to do things they’d prefer not to or empowered to do the things they desire. Consider:

It’s a political act to fence off a sacred site. It’s also a political act to jump that fence.

It’s a political act to cut down an ancient forest. It’s also a political act to fight to protect it.

It’s a political act to declare those who believe in magic and gods ‘crazy’ or mentally-ill, freaks or idiots.  And in such a world, it’s a political act to hold public rituals and build shrines to those gods.

It’s a political act to build societies where 40-hour work weeks and the accumulation of mass-produced products are requirements of survival. And it’s a political act to demand more from life, to refuse the imperatives of Capitalism, and to make your own society.

Resistance is Beautiful

In each of those cases, our political responses are also acts of resistance.  To comply with the no-trespassing order, to allow a forest to be cut down, to hide our rituals and secret away our traditions–these are what is desired of us by the powerful and the rich, by world leaders and wealthy businessmen.  To insist that life and the world and each other are more important, more meaningful than the demands of Capital and Authority–this is a beautiful resistance.

What most Pagans, Heathens, Polytheists, Witches and Druids are trying to do is engage the world more fully, rejecting what is offered to us in the malls and on the televisions and insisting: no. I will make my own world. Though how our worlds look are often quite different, what we sense, celebrate, revere and worship has a lot more in common with others in these traditions than it ever does with the flattened and static identities offered to us.  Whether we reject the ideas of the modern in favor of closer ties to nature or community, whether we seek out new modes of being by following the whispers of a god or the tendrils of a vine, our very existence challenges the dominant narrative of Capitalist, secular societies.

To pretend otherwise is to deny our true power, to make mockery of our gods and mere role-play of our rituals.

It’s for this that Gods&Radicals exists.  Though we count many anarchists, socialists, and communists amongst our writers, we are not a political party.  Though we’ve got many polytheists and animists amongst us, we have no theological creed.  And though more of us write from the United States than from other countries, we are an internationalist project.

A year ago, just before I rushed along with Alley to talk to Pagans about Capitalism, I did not think I would feel as I do today. I could not have known that I’d be working with so many incredibly intelligent, creative, and fierce writers from the United States, Canada, the UK, Europe, and Australia. I didn’t know there’d come a time when I’d no longer ask the question, “why is no one talking about Capitalism?” and instead get to ask, “so, what are we going to do about this?”

And that’s where I think what we all should be talking about. We’re witches and priests, druids and magicians–we’re good at manifesting things.  How do we manifest the world we see beyond what everyone else sees? How do we help them see it too?

How do we protect the dying forests, how to we clean the poisoned rivers? How do we recover what was lost when the witches were burned and the factories arose? What tools do we use, wand or tree-sit, protest or ritual, creation or destruction?

How do we heal the harm done to ourselves, the harm done to each other, and the harm done to the world we hold sacred?  And with which manifestations do we finally fight those who, above the fray of our own divisions, profit from the destruction of all we hold beautiful?

That’s what this is all about.

At that presentation last year, Alley and I passed out a photocopied zine we’d put together called A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer. (In fact, to celebrate one year from its publication, we’re now offering a professionally bound and expanded edition on 14 February.)  It ends with the words with which I’ll end this editorial:

You might be thinking—
but wait, is this all?
It isn’t, but there’s not much else we can tell you.
The rest of this is up to you.
Seriously.
The world we know is dying. Polluted, warming, falling apart, flooding,
poisoned. There are wars everywhere, and it’s no surprise these happen in
places full of resources we need to continue Capitalism.
Species go extinct. Humans die in alleyways and gutters. Rivers turn to fire
from pipeline leaks, pipelines carrying oil to fuel our high consumerism, our
petty trinkets and throw-away society.
You know what needs to happen.
You can feel it.
The spirits cry out—there’s not much time.
The gods seem to prepare for war.
The dead whisper voicelessly at those who’ll soon join them.
You have magic.
Use it.
You were born with power.
Claim it.
You’ve seen the Gates to the Other World.

Open them, and let them through.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd 2016Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of the first issue of A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love. His second book, A Kindness of Ravens is available now.

Report From Greece, Part 1

From Thessaloniki to Iraklion
Summer 2015

by George Caffentzis

In the summer of 2015 I spent a month in Greece, from June 10 to July 10. I travelled from Thessaloniki to Volos to Athens to Sparta to the Mani to Crete then back to Athens. I stayed mostly with comrades, some new, some old and I was joined for ten days by Silvia Federici. What follows are some observations and comments on this tumultuous period that included the “OXI” (“NO!”) referendum, innumerable meetings of the “Troika[ed note: the triumvirate representing the European Union in its foreign relations] with and without the officials of Syriza, the coalition of leftist parties that took over the government in January 2015 after being a tiny party for decades [ed. note: or, the Greek Coalition of the Radical Left, name taken from the Greek adverb “from the roots”]. Though the sections are undated, they are roughly placed in a chronological order. This is not meant to be a comprehensive account of the situation in Greece, so there are many facets of the class struggle there that are not noted. But I should point out that the immigrant workers are part of the Greek working class.

Greece 2015: Setting the Stage

The following is what I can make of collective understanding of the crisis put together with the help of comrades from Greece and the U.S. (in my own words, of course):

3 July, 2015: Greek referendum 2015: demonstration for voting NO at Syntagma square, Athens Greece. Photo by Ggia (CC BY-SA 4.0).
3 July, 2015: Greek referendum 2015: demonstration for voting NO at Syntagma square, Athens Greece. Photo by Ggia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

There are two levels to the crisis. First is the visible financial balance sheet level. Here is the world of debt payments due, say X, and the largely tax-based income of the state, say Y, and X-Y is what is due and it is huge amount. The drama of money, part tragedy, part comedy, is played out, with the protagonists in the front of the stage (incarnated by the financial wizards of the troika, the “young” P.M. Tsipras and the now ex-finance minister Varoufakis) while in the background is a shadowy chorus of bond-holders and out-front vulture hedge-fund managers who intervene periodically with sibylline utterances full of threat and fury.

The second level is the unstated but persistently followed plan to use the first crisis of state finances (the debt crisis) to put the European proletariat into crisis by making the elimination of labor legislation favorable to workers, the cuts in pensions, increased unemployment and a dramatic decrease in wages as structural adjustment conditionalities for any new “bailout” loans. The Greek working class is simply the supposed “weak link” useful for carrying out the plan aimed at Europe as a whole.

This is why the “fictive capital” theorists are so unconvincing. If the structural adjustment program elements of the plan were missing, then there would be a “financial solution to a financial problem.” But the clear purpose of the financial crisis is to deal with the fall of profitability in the entire European region. Capitalist strategists believe that the levels of wages, alternative forms of work refusal (pensions and welfare benefits) and of reproductive “services” (health and education) are so high that they make it impossible for European-based capital to compete (especially with Asian and North American capital). The crisis managers’ aim is to normalize the cuts in these levels and to make such a working class existence (precarious wages and even a return to testing physiological limits) a feature of the standard of living in Europe for the foreseeable future. If this is not done, European capital will suffer what at first may look like euthanasia, but then will later precipitate into a violent dissolution. This is the crisis of European capital! So not only are the European proletarians in trouble, but so are the capitalists. There are many crises in the field, there is no THE crisis.

All Quiet on the Extra-Parliamentary Front

There is something remarkable happening in Greece with the victory of Syriza in the elections of January 2015. A left-wing party gets into state power, but it seemed to have definitely kept the rest of the Left (parliamentary and extra-parliamentary) from using this time to put forward their own programs and demands in the streets. This seems to confirm Raul Zibechi’s insight, coming from Latin America, that the only force that could now defeat the anti-capitalist social movements is a left-wing government in power (or on its way to power).

Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece and President of Parlamentary group of SY.RIZ.A.-E.K.M. Photo by FrangiscoDer (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece and President of Parlamentary group of SY.RIZ.A.-E.K.M. Photo by FrangiscoDer (CC BY-SA 3.0).

I sensed a definite loss of direction, of energy, of confidence in the last few years within the extra-parliamentary left. Between December 2008 and April 2012 there was a period of intense confrontation with the forces of the state run by right-wing parties proposing austerity as a way out of the crisis. Along with this was the direct confrontation with Golden Dawn, the Greek version of the German Nazi Party [ed note: this is not the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn, familiar to many pagans & occultists]. Both were very popular antagonists.

But the rise of Golden Dawn was halted by its members’ assassination of a popular leftist rap singer that brought out a tremendous response. The right-wing government at the time then recognized that the Golden Dawn was too dangerous to let it expand without some checks. Without the antagonistic presence of Golden Dawn, however, the raison d’etre of much alarm and sense of emergency was vanishing in the fall of 2014.

Syriza’s sudden rise to state power (with its pledge to end the austerity regime imposed by the “the troika” and its minions in Greece) was also disconcerting for the extra-parliamentary left, since Syriza’s success implied that there might be an electoral way out of the regime of poverty and tatters.

Together these two developments disarmed the critics of electoral solutions to the crisis. So now in the face of an unprecedented attack on living standards, we see very little response in the streets. Syriza is therefore receiving negative support from the extra-parliamentary left.

Moreover, on the extra-parliamentary front, there is much division and backbiting typical of a period of defeat. I cannot help but be skeptical of the appeal of the extra-parliamentary left’s political program when I compare the number of youths involved in the simple commodification and consumption of sociality, sexuality and general pleasure in the cafes and tavernas —as if they are thumbing their collective noses at the troika! What a display of the willfulness of enjoyment that inserts a new pole of attraction in the equation…a pure anarchism.

As I walk through downtown Thessaloniki in the soft evening air I wonder, am I on the deck of the Titanic or am I walking through Paradise?

A clear-headed Anarchist from Thessaloniki speaks:

  • The solidarity economy is not strong enough yet to take on the task of social reproduction.
  • The collapse of the Syriza government would lead to an extremely repressive right-wing replacement.
  • Doing cooperative labor is not easy. Multiplying our experience with a cooperative bookstore would definitely be a lesson.

ERT3 confronts Syriza

Silvia Federici and I were invited to a meeting of workers at the national radio and television (ERT3) station in Thessaloniki. It was shut down exactly two years ago by the troika-friendly Nea Democratia-PASOK government that was looking to do something dramatic to show the bondholders that it was serious in sticking to the structural adjustment agenda. The shut-down decision was made abruptly and disrespectfully, with accusations of laziness and corruption tossed around to justify it. But the workers refused to exit silently. They faced down the police with the help of a crowd that blocked the entrances to the station and they continued to work in their studios and offices with live news, opinion and entertainment programing. In the evening and early morning there were documentary programs and re-runs. So that the station provided a 24/7 presence via the internet with programing especially keyed to the interests of the Northern Greek and Balkan audience. They did all this without pay and with donations from their listeners.

When Syriza came to power in January 2015 its spokespeople promised to revive the public broadcasting system and rehire all the journalists, technicians and office personnel that were laid off in 2013. This was the day when everything would be regularized with the arrival of the newly appointed station manager from government headquarters in Athens. However, not all was well as far as the workers were concerned.

First, the ERT3 workers have been used to self-management after two years of making decisions on the basis of assemblies of workers. In fact, that is exactly what they did on the arrival of station manager. They invited him to their assembly to debate with him as to his instructions from Syriza headquarters in Athens.

Second, they had learned one of the first acts of the new station director would be to lay-off or not-hire anyone that had joined the effort to keep the station alive in the previous two years.

Third, they were not happy that the new station manager was a former official of PASOK. Why wasn’t someone more in line with the politics of Syriza sent to become station manager? Or, what is Syriza’s politics now in the first place?

At the workers’ assembly there was talk about going on strike to protest the threatened lay-offs. In response, at the very moment when the rest of the workers would be getting a pay-check for the first time in two years, there was much dramatic rhetoric on the theme of the importance of ERT3’s programming, in support of the argument that the station should not go on strike (since ERT3 is often the only news channel that covers the strikes of others)!

Talk in Volos

After a number of talks in Thessaloniki by George and/or Silvia, here are notes for a joint talk in the Architecture school in the University at Volos:

From Debt To Crisis To Enclosure of the Commons

What is happening in Greece is the implementation of a structural adjustment program (a technical term that became so hated around the planet that the World Bank and IMF stopped using the term to be replaced by the term “Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper”!) as it was applied to former colonized states that have taken their mandate from the anti-colonial movement seriously. They were posing a threat in claiming the New International Economic Order (NIEO). This was a serious challenge (of which the nationalization of the oil industry across the planet was an example). The NIEO was in effect claiming reparations for colonialism’s massive theft of land, mineral wealth and labor-power. This was getting too close to the old masters’ bone and had to stop! To do this a trap was prepared, a debt trap. The governments of the former colonial world were tempted to take out loans with variable interest rates which at the time were relatively low, to fulfill the very mandate of ending the poverty and degradation of the last century. The trap was sprung in 1979 (under the rubric of “stopping inflation.”). The interest on the loans rose to nearly 20% over night. The former colonized countries’ governments were trapped indeed facing a debt crisis!The IMF and WB acted quickly. They did not want to lose the opportunity the crisis provided by dealing with a financial problem by financial means (e.g., rolling over the debt for another year). On the contrary, they imposed structural adjustment conditionalities that were directly aimed at the elimination of the commons (since most of these SAPs had requirements involving the land ownership and the transformation of commons into private ownership and other goals that were meant to privatize what were considered common goods (from pensions to “royalties” on extracted wealth. So here we have a direct line from Debt to Crisis to the Enclosure of the Commons.

Like a Frenzied Dog on a Trapped Fox

A similar path can be traced in the application of this scenario to Europe, starting with Greece. This is a period of low interest rates and there is much lending, but it is also a period of low profits as well. Greece became part of the Eurozone under the assumption that the inevitable restriction in monetary policy required by the single currency would be compensated during a crisis (e.g., roll overs of the debt would be allowed). This was a mistaken assumption, since it was not assumed by the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF. So a trap was closed on European countries like Greece and a package of structural adjustment policies was unleashed like a frenzied dog on a trapped fox. These policies were directed at commons and commons-like institutions (from pension funds to revenues from the extraction of mineral wealth) in preparation for the TTIP (the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). These specifics are driving the clear investing in silver 2016 that we are expecting.

An Autonomy Crisis

The reactions from the working class of Europe was tumultuous, and a new version of “IMF riots” were chronicled throughout Europe from 2010 on. But there hasn’t been any break through. The working class of Europe is experiencing a crisis of its power to say “No!”…i.e., an autonomy crisis that the OXI vote of July 5 might signal an anti-capitalist resolution.

Family and Poverty Reduction

The most effective poverty reduction institution in Greece is still the family. Though the family capital is being depleted at a rapid rate, it has been the cushion for the hard landing many have individually experienced these last five years. I’ll always remember my cousin’s table for Sunday lunch, everyone, four generations, eating elbow to elbow, frustrated each in their own ways, but all with a full belly! In fact, there is a race between state capital with family capital to determine which will be depleted first. If families’ savings get exhausted first, there will be genuine food riots that hadn’t been seen since the 19th century. If state capital exhausts first, there would be an anarchist turn in the creation of social reproduction institutions (from health clinics to Community Supported Agriculture agreements).

Cash in the Mattress and the Increase in Burglaries

There is much suspicion of banks and other financial institutions in Greece. There haven’t been any serious runs on the banks YET, but there is a walk from them. This explains the dramatic increase in the hoarding of cash under the famous mattresses. This has led to an increase in the number of burglaries, since burglars read the financial news as well! There is even a burglar’s demand for machines that locate gold coins!

A Fashion Statement

There is a strong taste for the tattered jeans, shorts and t-shirts this summer in Greece. Is this a fashion commentary on the crisis? Is this a way of merging the inside with the out? While sitting in the central square of Sparta, I see a little two-year old dressed with torn jeans. This fashion statement is a reminder of a change in the frankness of expression, because when I was a child on the Sparta square, the parents and children were dressed to a “t,” even though the poverty of the 1950s was much deeper than today’s.

Plato’s Republic and Debt Refusal

Plato's Academy Archaeological Site in Akadimia Platonos subdivision of Athens, Greece. Photo by Tomisti (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Plato’s Academy Archaeological Site in Akadimia Platonos subdivision of Athens, Greece. Photo by Tomisti (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In the midst of the debt crisis in Greece, Joulia Strauss, a German artist, decided that it was time to bring artists, scholars, political activists to Greece to show their solidarity with the Greek people in crisis. She thought a free school would be the best way to express this solidarity and the best venue for the school would be the site of Plato’s Academy (a few stones remain of it, rescued by archeologists). A. contacted me, recommended Joulia’s project and so I joined. I thought a presentation of Plato’s views on debt payment refusal would be a suitable topic. Then on the 23 of June a small band (reaching twenty at its peak) made its way to the site of the Academy and I made my presentation. The following is the text I based my remarks on:

June 23, 2015 at Plato’s Academy

Everyone would surely agree that if a sane man lends weapons to a friend and then asks them back when he is out of his mind, the friend shouldn’t return them, and wouldn’t be acting justly if he did.
Plato, Republic 331c.

In the fall of 2011, just after the termination of Occupy Wall Street, I began speaking in support of those who had pledged to refuse to repay their student loan debt once a million others have also pledged to do so (under the rubric of Occupy Student Debt Campaign). In the course of giving a number of presentations concerning this campaign I received many queries and criticisms. The queries were most often practical, e.g., “what about co-signers, what will happen to them if I refuse to pay when I become the millionth and first student loan debt refuser?” The criticisms were also practical, ranging from “why not organize people to refuse all debt?” to “if you refuse to pay student loans debt, wouldn’t the Federal Government stop supporting the student loan program at all and hence you would harm future students?” I was prepared to deal with these practical questions and criticisms on their own terms, with empirical evidence and political argument.

But there was a more problematic criticism that was not so easily answered, since those who voiced it were not just in disagreement with the premise of the campaign–it was justified to refuse to pay a student loan debt– but they were morally offended by it. Their retorts to my arguments for the Campaign took on an almost metaphysical aura of sanctity when they spoke about the importance of paying debts from loans that were freely entered into, whatever the consequences. Their criticism quickly left the plane of facts and even values and entered into a world of meta-values with the primary one being: one cannot be morally serious unless one pays back one’s debts.

The political problem posed by this moral attitude to debt repayment is that it touched a raw nerve in many student loan debtors who have been ashamed by their inability to pay off their loans. This shame has led many to try to cover up and not talk to others (even family members) about their plight. According to my research concerning previous student loan debt abolition efforts, one of the key reasons they have not been successful has been their inability to overcome debtors’ characteristic shamed silence that is profoundly anti-political because it turns the collective problem of debt repayment into an individual issue to be dealt with one person at a time. Consequently, this moral criticism had to be dealt with directly and decisively if the anti-student debt effort was not to meet a similar fate, since this criticism not only makes it difficult to move the critics, but it has a problematic effect on many debtors who are already vulnerable to the mental blackmail implicit in the “debt moralists’” assertions.

In thinking through the conundrum posed by these debt moralists, I realized that, as a philosopher, I was equipped to deal with the philosophical arguments for or against student loan debt repayment. The more I explored the literature the more I realized that the defense of debt refusal has a long philosophical history. It was important to get this literature into the contemporary discourse on debt in response to the rigidity of debt moralism.

Sketch of George Caffentzis, discussing Plato on Debt at Plato's Academy. Drawing by Joulia Strauss.
Sketch of George Caffentzis, discussing Plato on Debt at Plato’s Academy. Drawing by Joulia Strauss.

If Plato’s Republic marks the beginning of political philosophy, then debt payment refusal appears at the beginning of the beginning of political philosophy. Plato, the aristocratic darling of conservative thinkers, actually defends debt payment refusal in the Republic. Plato’s concern with debt should not be surprising, since indebtedness leading to debt slavery was the source of civil wars and revolutions throughout ancient Greek history from 600BC on. Solon, the famous Athenian law-giver, aimed to stop the endless turmoil caused by the cycle of debt-enslavement-revolution-debt and the ever reigniting class war between the poor debtors and the creditor plutocrats that was leading Athens to catastrophe. He did so by legislating the end of debt slavery, a move that led to the democratization of the Athenian state, and increasingly the remuneration of citizens for their public work (especially for their participation in the administration of justice and legislation, which required attending general assemblies and being part of juries, like the jury of 800+ that decided Socrates’ trial).

Solon was a politician and even a sage, but he was not a philosopher. Plato was. What did he have to say about debt repayment refusal? Significantly, the discussion of debt at the very beginning of the Republic. The first person Socrates interrogates, posing the book’s germinating question “What is justice?” is Kephalos, a wealthy arms manufacturer — although an immigrant, a member of the Athenian 1% — and owner of the house where the dialogue staged in the Republic is supposed to take place. The name “Kephalos” itself is important, for in ancient Greek it meant “head,” and as such it is a cognate of the word for “capital.”

Kephalos’ answer to Socrates’ question, appropriately enough for a merchant, is: “Speak the truth and pay your debts!” But Socrates easily dismisses this definition, pointing out that if a person borrows some weapons from a friend, but in the interim the friend “goes berserk” and becomes (murderously and/or suicidally) insane, it would not be just for the debtor to return the weapons to the friend…in fact, repaying the debt in this circumstance would be positively unjust, since it would lead to either murder or suicide or both! Thus the conditions of just repayment of a debt do not necessitate an absolute commitment to repayment under any conditions. Universalizing the kernel of Socrates’ rejoiner to Kephalos’ definition, we come to the following maxim: one should refuse to repay a loan when the payment will lead to evil or unjust consequences that far outweigh what fairness would result from its payment.

Plato’s suspicion of Kephalos’ wisdom was the outcome of the Athenians’ long political experience with a class of merchants and landlords who, like Kephalos, insisted that their loans should be repaid even if this should result in debt-slavery and class-based civil war. This may explain why, in Socrates’ response, Plato referred to the loan of a weapon! For creditors in this case appear to be a maddened crowd, with debt repayment being a cause of murder and suicide, especially when ending with the enslavement of fellow citizens.

These issues did not die with the end of the ancient world. Indeed, today’s “debt moralists” offer a response to those who refuser student loan repayment similar to the one that Kephalos made to Socrates’ query. In turn, we too must respond to the categorical imperative of debt moralists in the same way that Socrates responded to Kephalos’ definition of justice, with an emphatic “it depends.”

First, it depends on whether student loans are unjust in and of themselves qua loans. On this count, the actual mechanisms of student loan debt speak decisively. For a start, student loan debts in the US cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, unlike almost all other loan debts can be. In addition a large percentage of these loans have been contracted under fraudulent conditions, as it was revealed in the course of frequent scandals, court cases and Congressional committees’ investigations. As Robert Meister pointed out in the case of the University of California, UC administrators pledge future student fees largely to be paid for by student loans and grants to support UC’s bond ratings, its capital projects and a variety of equity deals that turn public money to private gain. This territory has been thoroughly explored by previous student loan debt abolition movements and there is still a lot more to learn.

Second, it depends on whether the collective good is served by repayment. Here it is important to understand the function of student debt in the context of the changes that have taken place in university financing since the 1970s. The ever increasing student debt burden (now beyond one trillion dollars) has been the material condition that made the imposition of ever increasing tuition fees in both public and private non-profit universities possible and financed the expansion of for-profit universities. These developments have led to the corporatization and privatization of universities, on the one side, and plunged a whole generation into debt-bondage. There is no doubt, therefore, that restoring a tuition-free university system and avoiding a further polarization of society requires that we end the present student debt system.

Third, it depends on whether the education and knowledge student loans are intended to pay for ought be commodities in the first place. This is where Plato enters again. Plato held a life-long antipathy to “sophists.” This word had a sociological reference–those who sell their knowledge to students—as well an epistemological one—those who claim to be wise. The sophists believed that knowledge was a commodity that could be exchanged for money. This was their answer to the question that has been at the center of the debate concerning the development of “for-profit” universities and the intensification of corporate efforts to impose intellectual property legal regimes on academic labor. Plato would not approve. His was a notion of knowledge that was neither commodified nor commodifiable. In Plato’s Republic those who know are to live a perfectly communistic life, neither paying for their education nor getting paid for its use. For two thousand years this conception of an academic institution remained the dominant one, and even in these neoliberal times it still has value.

The very status of most universities (that are either public or private but non-profit) and the traditional temporal limitations placed on “intellectual property rights” (e.g., patents give monopoly rights for the sale of an invention for 20 year) indicate that, despite highly organized and well-financed efforts, the commodification of education and knowledge is still not perceived as legitimate. If most universities are not supposed to profit from the education they provide and the knowledge they disseminate, why should ancillary financial institutions profit from them instead?

Student debt refusal, then, is in principle as just as one’s refusal to return a borrowed loaded gun to a maddened friend who intends to murder and then commit suicide with it. It should not be deterred by objections like the following, “Wouldn’t canceling all student loan debt be unfair to all those people who struggled to pay back their student loans?” For as David Graeber retorted in his important book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, this argument is as foolish as saying that it is unfair to a mugging victim that his/her neighbors were not mugged as well! (p. 389) Plato would agree.

Look for Part 2 of Report From Greece by George Caffentzis — with Silvia Federici — here.

George Caffentzis is a philosopher of money. He is also co-founder of the Midnight Notes Collective and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. He has taught and lectured in colleges and universities throughout the world and his work has been translated into many languages. His books include: Clipped Coins, Abused Words and Civil Government: John Locke’s Philosophy of Money, Exciting the Industry of Mankind: George Berkeley’s Philosophy of Money; No Blood for Oil! and In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism. His co-edited books include: Midnight Oil: Work Energy War 1973-1992.

Olives of Asperity

This morning I watered the three plants I have managed to wedge onto my balcony beside the washing machine and propped up by a makeshift shelf so the rosemary and holly could get enough sunlight and I noticed something that I was assured couldn’t happen by reason of only having a single olive tree in a part of the world distinctly not known for them:         I noticed olives on a tree that shouldn’t have had any.

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Time; it is something that humanity may never understand to our lasting satisfaction, we all must answer to its inevitable weight and everyone collectively or un- has a different relationship with it. Every philosophy, society, way of life – you name it; all have a different relationship to Time.

Pagans & Heathens et al have what can only be described as an interesting relationship to Time. For the most part there is less of an overt fear of our own mortality, we profess to a better and or more intimate appreciation of certain cycles than our contemporaries; we in effect have one foot in the past while we step forward into the future. This relationship however, has one prominent flaw: we’re often too damned slow to act. At barely some few days into 25, in comparison to many I certainly speak with youthful prerogative. Everything often seems to occur too slowly for one’s liking – which is a thought founded on the idea that there is a sufficiency, nay excess, of time with which to achieve one’s purpose. If I may be so bold as to say: the hour has long past the moment when we had even just enough time.

On the 26th of June, Tess Dawson at Polytheist published an article entitled “The Horror of Palmyra” which goes into an exposition about the current and past condition and use of the city of Palmyra which is both historically speaking of insurmountable archaeological value and religiously speaking one of a great many such sites which the arguably named Daesh (Da’ish/Da’eesh/ISIL/etc) have either destroyed or quasi taken hostage. Her distaste for the actions of the group is clear, her recounting of the various uses of the sacred site and the gods that have been worshipped there is rich and engaging. However by the end of the article Tess concludes the piece thusly:

“We need to nourish, hold, and maintain our polytheist spaces, our holy places, our sacred discourses, our necessary conversations, our holidays, our rites, our offerings, our blessed gatherings. We need to nourish, hold, and maintain these things on behalf of our deities, our ancestors, and each other. And we need to do this far more than any curse or call for vengeance. Indeed, these very acts themselves are revolutionary and the very things that Daesh and others would try to blot out. Do these things first, and then, only then, contemplate curses because vengeance is nothing when there is nothing left to avenge.”
-Tess Dawson, The Horror of Palymra

Tess is not the only person to have written about Palmyra at Polytheist either. Galina Krasskova is someone I openly respect and hold no small amount of admiration for; so it is a strange position for me to be in to use her as a way of demonstrating I find serious fault with.

Galina’s article “A Polytheistic Day of Protest and Remembrance”, is very much what I have come to expect from her: wise voice, powerful spirit and a refined passion resting beneath the surface. Truth be told, she reminds me of my mother in no small way in that she seems very mild mannered, brilliantly intelligent and sagacious but utterly fearsome when given to being impassioned. Her contribution is a prayer and offering for anyone and everyone to follow on the 31st of July, her proposed day of protest and remembrance – the prayer she includes with the article:

“May the holy places of the Many Gods remain inviolate for all time.
“May the hands of the enemies of the Many Gods be smashed and their efforts come to naught.
May the worship of the Many Gods flourish in many lands again.”
– Galina Krasskova, A Polytheistic Day of Protest and Remembrance

It isn’t hard to say why I think both these people are wrong in their proposed courses, because it is something that is seen regularly in the Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist et al population, substantially more than anything else. The somewhat recent Pagan Community Statement on the Environment demonstrates it again. Most articles written by Insert A. Name for as long as I can recall have shared attributes with the two I single out and the Statement; the conveyance of a belief that we still have time left. A persisting belief that there is still ‘enough time’ to solve the problem or defeat the bad guy or fix the planet – that there is time for solidarity alone to have an effect.

Tess and Galina both, fall back to a palisade oft compared to the creed “love thy neighbor” of predominantly Christian renown. While it is an agreeable thing to say ‘love conquers all’ there is an indisputable, imminent reality which quite violently says otherwise; and while I will wholeheartedly step up to the lectern to espouse just how humanity (and ostensibly by extension the universe around us) has changed in the intervening years, I would like to remind the audience that the Deity of the Old Testament is radically different to the one who practiced the aforementioned creed. Moreover it is well worth reminding that for all that we and those gods with which we align ourselves may have grown, developed or otherwise changed along with us, it is very clear that the changes have not been all too profound and what is possibility for us must surely be certainty for the gods.

There are no easy answers here: practically no white or black, very little red, green and blue and tumultuous amounts of grey yet that which transcends the issue is that the temporal component to much of what we do simply doesn’t exist. Whether it is because we ourselves are too hesitant or taken with sloth to act or the unpredictable nature of something like Daesh or the reality that nourishment and healing and solidarity are things that require time which neither we nor anyone else has anymore. Discourse won’t slow the slaughter of men or women or children; proper nourishment is chancy in the right conditions and a problem for another day in conditions such as these; the true inviolability of someone or something only comes about through a few avenues: respect for someone or something, fear of repercussion, a sense of awe, and expressions of power… Apropos Palmyra its worth remembering that the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians and their contemporaries protected such sites with curses and not with prayers.

Perhaps it is because even We fear a reality where we can set ourselves to this kind purpose and experience the results, that we do not raise our hand honestly to the task set to us. Even the most simple of curses, bad luck, still holds such a powerful sway over the modern world and so perhaps it is because the fear of even this most childish of curses persists that we outright refuse to gird ourselves and issue forth greater maledictions.

I will. Not out of spite for the words of Tess or Galina, not for any conceiting belief in my power over the world, not to prove myself as some chosen vassal of a god or gods, not because I want a fight, not for any hatred of Daesh nor love of any one nation or more, certainly not because I think it will have some sudden and cataclysmic effect on them.

I’ll curse instead of praying, I’ll do it because as sure as there’ll be some lambasting comment about my character as a human being that results from this article I will be able to feel slightly less sick to my core when I read in the news that Palmyra is in rubbles and that humanity has irrecoverably lost yet another memory to Daesh and that I did everything I could have done to try and stop them; that I used everything I had to try and prevent them from demolishing Palmyra as though it were nothing but stones.

Moreover I’ll do it because without priests and guardians of its own to do this in its defense, someone has to do it on their behalf; their duties and responsibilities are now ours.


As I’m sitting here looking at my olive tree and thinking about the bee that probably found its way up here the other month, I consider what I did when I first planted the tree. I wanted to give it the best chance I could, I took the lungs and heart of a chicken, buried them on a painted bindrune at the bottom of the pot and sang a little charm I learned somewhere to make plants grow well. I did so fairly sure that it would do something, after all, my mother’s garden seemed to respond well to similar treatment. I look at these olives and I remember the quiet moment I had when I first thought that I had caused them to happen, that I had done something so small and ordinary but ultimately what should have been impossible. I think perhaps many of us, me included, are too ready to crush that little grain of faith in favor of certain skepticism.

So I turn myself to a new task at hand. I’ve resolved myself through word and now that resolve must be turned to deed and I consider the how of it, the phrasing of it, and the moment of it. I consider that my 31st of July will be the 30th for many who have read Galina and Tess’s words. I consider how they are the grandparents of this and that part of them should be in how it will be done. I consider the importance of Galina’s design that it be done nine times, the weight of Nine; nine months of pregnancy, nine days Odin hung from the Tree taking up the runes; nine times on one day, nine times on nine days perhaps; Tess’s words about vengeance and nourishment and necessary conversations and our rites; what makes Daesh seem powerful to us; what makes Palmyra so important; the powers of names… All these things come to mind and so too does Medea, a memory of an essay written in university. I wrote about her and Prospero and their magic; more figures come to mind be they legendary, mythological, fable or fact, historical or living; so many come to mind. I can’t consider myself their equal, not in ten lifetimes but thinking on them does help. With them in mind I put pen to paper and begin to make ready.

Design by Markos Gage, a.k.a The Gargarean, for Galina Krasskova’s undertaking.

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Alan Evans

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A silver tongued seductee of language, consumately un-settled and mortally afflicted with fernweh, Alan Evans learns for the sake of learning and the strangers-become-companions met along the way. He pines for the gods, teaches
English, learns languages, plays drums, understands people, makes love in four languages, writes and fights like only Australian grandson of an Irishwoman can and will salaciously flirt to death any ‘Wizard of Oz’ quips. Main site: Trees in the Train Station. Also contributes to The Elemental Witch.

Dread of a Revolution

By Anthony Rella

behead-poolI dream that a friend of mine is leading a ritual to teach us about capitalism and its damages. The ritual is bizarre and colorful. After, I see a group of elders heading toward a table, complaining about how they don’t understand what was happening, expressing their anger at my friend. I tell another person about this, who says, “They’ve forgotten the role of fear and trembling in religion.”

Sometimes I think it’s enough for me to live a life that is simple and useful. No big drama, no public persona, no extremes of wealth or fame, simply showing up every day to be of service and lighten others’ burdens as best as I can. When I look at what’s in front of me, what it’s within my skills and capacity to do as a therapist, I feel a sense of ease and purpose. Being present in a room with someone, trying to listen and understand them deeply and help them to listen to and understand themselves deeply, feels powerful and satisfying and I know it improves quality of life and quality of relationships.

Yet often I wonder whether a simple and useful life is enough for the world. Is my service too myopic? Am I retreating to the comfort of believing myself powerless when I fail to speak out against mass incarceration, against rampant inequality, against the decimation of our environment? I may never have to experience some of these problems directly, yet I believe we all suffer from their existence. To live in a city in which one’s condominiums were built on a site that formerly housed 160 low-income families who have to find somewhere else to live that they can afford—itself built on a site colonized and annexed from its earlier inhabitants—no matter how noble I think I am, no matter how much money I give or how I pay lip service to the right slogans, at heart I know that my lifestyle includes evil. Not an obvious, movie villain kind of evil; an evil that quietly kills joy, exploits the land and living people, and grinds hope to dust.

I know that the iPhone that adds convenience to my life also includes evils of worker exploitation and environmental degradation. Riding a car, even riding a bus, my lifestyle depends on fossil fuels and energy consumption that includes evils of war and the pollution of air, water, and soil. The culture in which I never needed to consider why most important historical figures, writers, scientists, and artists all look like me is the culture that inflicts evil on people of color, assaulting and diminishing self-esteem and dignity, justifying disproportionate incarceration and state-endorsed murder. There is no opting out of this system.

We need more than personal change to create just, joyful, resilient, life-affirming cultures. I know that I cannot fix all these things myself. What I am best able to do is show up daily and support people, one by one, in being their best selves and creating better worlds. In my life, huge transformations have come when I simply kept showing up for daily practice and the work that was in front of me. That answer feels incomplete. Even when I meet individually with the people experiencing these harms and help them to become more resilient, more self-possessed, and more joyous, they still return to a system set up against their well-being.

To be honest, the idea of revolution terrifies me, as I suspect it terrifies anyone who has privilege, who benefits from the world as it is today. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard says of anxiety that it is “a desire for what one dreads.” One source of fear is the real possibility that revolution will leave people more oppressed and spiritually impoverished. Another source of fear is the belief that change will likely involve pain, at the very least discomfort. White people’s terror of Black people’s anger, I believe, is because deep down we know it’s warranted and just. We imagine how we would feel if the roles were reversed. We know that our ancestors benefited from the brutalization and exploitation of people of color. My Irish and Italian ancestors, at one point non-white in this country, might have once found common cause with people of color in protest. Instead, we got the “upgrade” to Whiteness, which was deliberate and strategic as explored by Noel Ignatiev in How the Irish Became White, and we’re now stakeholders in White privilege.

So I see in my heart the anger and resentment when people speak up about their oppression and it implicates me. I practice setting aside my defensiveness to listen, but still part of me wants to silence the oppressed, shame them, dismiss them. Part of me wants to pretend their stories aren’t real, their anger isn’t justified, or somehow exempt myself from the conditions that oppress them. Once I’ve begun to dismiss and silence, I’ve committed another crime against humanity. I’ve numbed the drive for justice and integrity. I’ve chosen to swallow the pain of life as it is and avoid the possibility that we can make things better. I’ve chosen to abdicate my power to make change and simply pretend that incomprehensible forces beyond my control made things the way they are, instead of humans making human choices.

While writing this piece, I encountered this quote from John Michael Greer:

It occurred to me the other day that quite a few of the odder features of contemporary American culture make perfect sense if you assume that everybody knows exactly what’s wrong and what’s coming as our society rushes, pedal to the metal, toward its face-first collision with the brick wall of the future. It’s not that they don’t get it; they get it all too clearly, and they just wish that those of us on the fringes would quit reminding them of the imminent impact, so they can spend whatever time they’ve got left in as close to a state of blissful indifference as they can possibly manage.

I don’t know the answers, or more likely I’m terrified by the answers in front of me. What I know is that we need those on the edges: the radicals, the queer, the marginalized, the ones who speak up and remind me of what I’d want to ignore. These are the voices that see we are the Titanic plowing heedlessly into the ice and shouting for us to stop. We need these voices if we’re going to survive the changes that are already happening.

Meanwhile I continue to show up to my spiritual practice every day, and show up to my life trying to seed connection and joy. If I am to continue, however, I must also own and nurture the part of me that feels anger, that pushes for change, that strives for a world in which everyone has a warm place to sleep, enough to eat, and does not live in fear of being harmed by the people who are supposed to protect them. Survival is not enough. Comfort is not enough. Fear is not enough. We must be whole, passionately loving this earth and our humanity, and striving for justice.

Anthony Rella

09LowResAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and therapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. Professionally, he is a psychotherapist working full-time for a community health agency and part-time in private practice.


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A Radical Pagan Pope?

Last week, Pope Francis’ much-anticipated environmental encyclical was published. As was expected, the Pope acknowledged the “human origins of the ecological crisis” (¶ 101), specifically that global warming is mostly due to the concentration of greenhouse gases which are released “mainly” as a result of human activity (¶ 23). And he called for the progressive replacement “without delay” of technologies that use fossil fuels. (¶ 165)

The Pope and small-p “paganism”

Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic
Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic

Even before Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical was published, critics were calling the Pope a “pagan”. This isn’t all that surprising given how the religious right has always accused environmentalists of “paganism”. And indeed there are some similarities between the Pope’s statement and contemporary Pagan discourse. For example, in the encyclical, the Pope personifies the earth, calling the the earth “Sister” (¶¶ 1, 2, 53) and “Mother” (¶¶ 1, 92). However, this language is drawn from a Christian, not a pagan, source: St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creatures”. And Pope Francis makes a point of saying that he is not “divinizing” the earth. (¶ 90) Instead, his intent is to emphasize the “fraternal” nature of our relationship with the earth and its inhabitants, both human and other-than, which he says have their own intrinsic value independent of their usefulness to us. (¶ 140)

Some of the language from the Pope’s statement resembled language in “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” For example, no less than 8 times throughout the encyclical, the Pope observes that “everything is interconnected” (¶¶ 16, 42, 70, 91, 111, 117, 138), a fact which, he says, “cannot be emphasized enough” (¶ 138). Similarly, the Pagan statement begins by recognizing our interconnectedness with the web of life:

“In recent decades, many contemporary Pagan religious traditions have stressed humanity’s interconnectivity with the rest of the natural world. Many of our ancestors realized what has now been supported by the scientific method and our expanding knowledge of the universe — that Earth’s biosphere may be understood as a single ecosystem and that all life on Earth is interconnected.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”

The Pope also observes that we are inherently part of the earth: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (¶ 139) The Pope introduces the encyclical with the observation that “our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” (¶ 2) This also resembles very closely language in the Pagan statement:

“We are earth, with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus making up our bodies one day, and incorporated into mountains the next. We are air, giving food to the trees and grasses when we exhale, and breathing in their gift of free oxygen with each breath. We are fire, burning the energy of the Sun, captured and given to us by plants. We are water, with the oceans flowing in our veins and the same water that nourished the dinosaurs within our cells.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.”

However, this does not make the Pope “pagan” (much less a “Pagan”). As Pagan Studies scholar Michael York explains, “even though such world religions as Christianity and Islam might cherish nature as a divine gift, they do not comprise nature religions. Instead, I argue that any religious perspective that honors the natural as the sacred itself made tangible, as immanent holiness, is pagan.” Rather, the Pope’s statements merely show how ubiquitous the idea of our interconnectedness with the earth has become. More than anything else, they are a reflection of the Pope’s acceptance of what has become scientific consensus.

Getting to the “root” of the matter: Anthropocentrism

A more interesting question than whether the Pope’s encyclical is “pagan” is the question whether the encyclical is as “radical” as some are claiming. No doubt, it is a radical challenge to capitalism (which will undoubtedly be a subject for future posts at G&R), but just how “radical” is the encyclical’s ecology? The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix or “roots”, so another way to ask that question is: Just how “deep” is the Pope’s ecology?

A truly deep ecology is one that challenges the anthropocentric paradigm which places humans hierarchically “above” other living species and above inanimate matter, which is seen to exist in some sense “for” humans. The Pope states that the encyclical is an “attempt to get to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes.” (¶ 15) But while the Pope comes to many right conclusions about anthropogenic climate change and the limits of capitalism, the encyclical is nevertheless plagued by a lingering anthropocentrism which he never manages to root out.

At first glance, it appears that the Pope is critical of anthropocentrism, but a closer look reveals that he always qualifies the word “anthropocentrism” when he uses it. For instance, he criticizes “distorted” or “excessive” or “tyrannical” anthropocentrism (¶¶ 68, 69, 116), but never just plain anthropocentrism. This implies that there is such a thing as an “undistorted” anthropocentrism or a “right amount” of anthropocentrism. And this becomes clear when the Pope insists on humanity’s “pre-eminence” (¶ 90) and “superiority” (¶ 220), and when he eschews “biocentrism” (¶ 118) and declines to “put all living beings on the same level” (¶ 90).

The Pope’s justification for a qualified anthropocentrism is flawed. He argues that, in the absence of a belief in our superiority, human beings will not feel responsible for the planet. (¶ 118) It is true that human beings are “unique” in many ways among the world’s fauna, but only in so far that other forms or life are also unique in their own ways. And while it is reasonable to argue that humans have special responsibilities to the earth, due to our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs (especially considering the messes we have made with our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs), the notion that a feeling of superiority is a necessary condition for a feeling of responsibility is specious. In fact, a belief in humanity’s “superiority” can actually weaken people’s sense of ecological responsibility, just as a heightened sense of responsibility can grow out of the loss of that belief.

Papal paternalism: the Great Chain of Being

A related problem with the encyclical is the Pope’s repeated characterization of the earth or nature as “fragile.” (¶ 16, 56, 78, 90) If by “fragility” he is referring to the fact that all of our actions affect the environment or that the ecosystem is sensitive to change, then that is true. But the earth itself is not fragile. It is we — and other species — that occupy a fragile place in the ecosystem. The ecosystem itself is resilient. As “Mother Nature” says in a video from Conservation International:

“I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years
Twenty-two thousand five hundred times longer than you
I don’t really need people but people need me

… I’ve been here for aeons
I have fed species greater than you, and
I have starved species greater than you
My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests,
they all can take you or leave you
How you chose to live each day whether you regard or
disregard me doesn’t really matter to me
One way or the other your actions will determine your fate not mine
I am nature
I will go on
I am prepared to evolve

Are you?”

While he speaks of an environmental “crisis” and “irreversible damage” to the ecosystem, there is no sense in the Pope’s encyclical that human beings are facing an existential threat (in contrast to the his earlier statement in May that “If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”).

The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being
The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being

This insistence on the “fragility” of nature and humankind’s “superiority” is a symptom of an implicit paternalism running throughout the encyclical. This paternalism is premised on a vision of nature as the Aristotelian “Great Chain of Being”, with God at the top, angels and humans in the middle, and (other) animals, plants, and the earth at the bottom. This arrangement places humans in same relation to the earth as God is in relation to humans — that of a powerful father to a weak child. This is why the Pope rejects “a divinization of the earth” (¶ 90), as it would effectively break the order of the Great Chain.

The Pope also repeatedly refers to the earth as God’s “gift” to humanity (¶¶ 71, 76, 93, 115, 146, 159, 220, 227), an idea which the foundation of a stewardship model of environmentalism. The idea that the earth is God’s gift to humanity first of all implies that the earth is “property” which can be gifted, which undermines the Pope’s earlier talk about humans being part of nature (¶ 2). It also perpetuates the hierarchical vision of the cosmos and implies that our responsibility to the earth derives not directly and horizontally from our “fraternity” with nature, but indirectly and vertically through our filial duty to a paternal deity. While the introductory paragraphs of the encyclical do speak of interconnectedness and fraternal responsibility (see above), ultimately the Pope never breaks out of the stewardship model of environmentalism (¶ 116), a model which has been thus far insufficiently radical to effect the “deep change” (¶ 215) which is necessary to revolutionize our collective relationship with the earth.

The same old story: Hierarchy

In 1967, professor of history Lynn White published an article in the periodical Science, entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. The article examined the influence of Christianity on humankind’s relationship with nature. White argued that the environmental decline was, at its “root”, a Christian problem. For White, the belief that the earth was a resource for human consumption could be traced back to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism, and even further back to the Biblical injunction to man to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” over every living thing. Medieval Christianity, according to White, elevated humankind, who was made in God’s image, and denigrated the rest of creation, which was believed to have no soul.

In his encyclical, the Pope attempts to answer White’s charge, and he makes a valiant attempt to reinterpret the Genesis “dominion” language. He rejects the notion that being created in God’s image and being given “dominion” over the earth justifies “absolute domination” over other creatures. (¶ 67) Instead, he says, a correct reading of Genesis understands that language in the context of the corresponding commands to “till and keep”, the latter word meaning “caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving”. This, he says, “implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.” (¶ 67)

In spite of this, the Pope’s qualification of the word “domination” with the word “absolute” implies again that a limited domination is justified. “We are not God,” he says. Citing scripture, the Pope says that the earth and everything in it belongs to God, and has been given to us. (¶ 67) Thus, it is not humankind’s domination of the earth that concerns the Pope, so much as humankind’s usurpation of God’s domination over everything.

This is the same old Christian story we know well, with its Great Chain of Being and the upstart human beings who don’t know their place: “a little lower than the angels” and with all the creatures of the earth “under their feet”. (Psalm 8:5-8) While arguably the Pope’s encyclical is more “theocentric” than “anthropocentric”, this turns out to be a distinction without a difference because humans are still placed above above all other forms of life (other than God and angels) in the cosmic hierarchy. Ultimately, the Pope fails to truly get to “root” of the ecological crisis, and his environmental encyclical never rises (or should we say “descends”) to the level of a truly “radical” — much less “pagan” — declaration.

Industrialisation and Radicalism in Preston

Preston: Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution

The city of Preston in Lancashire holds claim to being the birthplace of the industrial revolution. In 1769 Richard Arkwright invented the water frame in his three storey house on Stoneygate. According to a local rumour his neighbours mistook the noise of the machine for the devil’s bagpipes and imagined Arkwright and his accomplice, Kay, dancing a jig. This formed an eerie prelude to the rise of the ‘dark Satanic mills’ that came to dominate Preston and its people and made England ‘the workshop of the world’.

Arkwright House
Arkwright House

Industrialisation led to a massive increase in Preston’s populace. Between 1801 and 1851 it grew from 11,887 to 69,361. The mechanisation of spinning and hand-loom weaving forced people from their rural cottages where they practiced their trades into towns to seek employment in the mills.

Over forty mills were built with terraces to house the workers, which were hopelessly over-crowded. Slums grew up in backyards. Huge pools of waste accumulated due to the inadequacy of foul ditches, the most notorious being known as ‘Brown Friargate’. Cholera and smallpox were rife. Between 1880 and 1900, the town had the highest infant mortality rate in the country.

Class Conflict: Luddites and Chartists

Due to squalid living conditions, unreasonable hours and poor pay Lancashire became renowned for its social divides and class conflicts. In 1779 a mob marched from Blackrod gathering people from Chorley (3-4,000 in total!) to attack one of Arkwright’s earliest mills at Birkacre. After smashing the spinning frames, carding and roving engines and wheels they burnt them and razed the building to the ground.

In 1811 the Luddite movement emerged in opposition to the mechanisation of spinning and weaving. Invoking the legendary General Ludd its proponents burnt factories and smashed machines. Luddite revolts swept across Lancashire in 1813. Whilst I have found references to a Luddite presence and unrest in Preston I haven’t come across any examples of attacks on mills here yet.

Preston’s first major rebellion was the Spinners’ Strike of 1836. Shortly afterward it became a centre of the Chartist movement. This aimed to bring about social reform by winning the vote for working men. One of the main Chartist leaders in Preston was Richard Marsden, a hand-loom weaver from Bamber Bridge.

In 1838 Marsden arranged a massive demonstration of several thousand people including trade unions with four bands and forty banners sporting slogans such as ‘Better to die by the sword than perish with hunger’, ‘Britons strike home. We know our rights and will maintain them’, ‘Who would be free, must himself strike the first blow’.

Marsden affirmed the people’s right to use not only moral but physical force. Fergus O’Connor, who he invited to speak at the demonstration, also stated though he wished moral force would ‘effect every change’ in its failure ‘physical force would come to its aid like an electric shock.’ When the Charter was rejected by the House of Commons in 1839, the following strike (ironically named the ‘Sacred Month’) only lasted three days. The Chartists’ hope and lightning-like enthusiasm fizzled out.

The movement revived in 1842 in the wake of the economic depression. The next rejection of the Charter resulted in the notorious Plug Plot Riots. Mobs stormed across Lancashire pulling the plugs from steam engines and turning workers out of the mills. On Black Saturday (13th August 1842) an angry crowd gathered in Lune Street. As cotton lord Samuel Horrocks read the Riot Act, they pelted him with stones and an order was given to the police to open fire.

'Preston attack on the Military: two rioters shot', Illustrated London News, 13th August, 1842
‘Preston attack on the Military: two rioters shot’, Illustrated London News, 13th August, 1842

Twenty shots were fired. Four rioters were killed and three badly wounded. The mills re-opened on Monday. North Lancashire Chartism perished in 1848. But this did not end the strikes.

The Great Lock-Out

Because Preston’s cotton lords paid the lowest wages in the country, the town became the fulcrum of the struggle for better rates of pay. This led to the Great Lock-Out of 1853-54. Masters decided to close their factories over a cold and bitter winter rather than give in to the workers’ demands.

To staff the factories ‘knobstick’ workers; emaciated inhabitants of the workhouses of Ireland were shipped to Lancashire. Many were intercepted by the strikers, fed and sent back before they reached their destination. Getting them past the picket lines also proved to be an onerous task.

At this point Karl Marx famously proclaimed ‘The eyes of the working classes are now opened: they begin to cry “Our St Petersburg is at Preston”.’ However, Preston failed to become Britain’s revolutionary capital. When union funds ran out, on May Day 1854 the workers agreed to return.

Whilst these radical movements were initially unsuccessful they paved the way to fairer working hours and acceptance of the vote for working men under the Reform Act of 1867. Drawing on their legacy, the Preston-born suffragette, Edith Rigby, played a leading role in the establishment of equal voting rights for women in 1928.

In 1992 ‘The Preston Martyrs’ Memorial’: a brutalist sculpture by George Young was finally built to commemorate the death of the rioters on Lune Street. Its plaque reads: Never without sacrifice have gains been made towards justice and democracy.

Preston Matryrs' Memorial
The Preston Matryrs’ Memorial

The City Deal and Protest

Although the mills are gone, industrialisation has not gone away. The implementation of the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal involves the expansion of ‘Enterprise Zones’ belonging to BAE at Warton and Samlesbury, establishing ‘Development Centres’ for more businesses and building more houses and roads to create more jobs to grow the economy.

The growth of the economy is based upon fuel. Caudrilla are pushing to open a number of new fracking sites across Lancashire. The fates of Preston New Road and Roseacre will be decided between the 23rd and 26th of June. This decision will be crucial for whether fracking will be allowed to go ahead in other places in the county and across the UK. Protests have been planned outside the County Hall by Lancashire Frack Off and supporting groups.

Preston will again become a centre of conflict between those who wish to exploit the land and its people for the benefit of a few rich investors and shareholders and those willing to stand against them.

The Frack Stops Here 2 Poster

SOURCES

J. E. King Richard Marsden and the Preston Chartists, 1837-1848 (1981)
Jim Heyes A History of Chorley (1994)
David Hunt A History of Preston (1992)
Yarrow Valley History Trail Leaflet


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