Why Do Radicals Need Gods?

by James Lindenschmidt

I think the name of this website contains an unlikely pair, which is one of the reasons it’s one of the most interesting sites on the web for me. Indeed, I remember when Rhyd Wildermuth was conceiving of this “Pagan Anti-Capitalist website.” Of course I was very excited, since paganism and anti-capitalism are two of my favorite subjects. But I have a confession to make. When I first heard that the name of the site had been registered as GodsAndRadicals.org, I was underwhelmed. You see, I don’t identify as a polytheist, despite my appreciation and respect for polytheism. I felt the “gods” part would alienate the non-polytheist pagans who might otherwise appreciate what we are doing.

In addition, historically speaking, most radicals (such as Anarchists and Marxists) usually don’t align themselves with religions or theological points of view other than atheism. Most radical traditions emphasize materialist metaphysics, largely neglecting if not outright rejecting the realm of theology. I thought, therefore, that any mention of “gods” would be off-putting to a sizeable population of radicals who might otherwise be interested in what we are doing here.

I no longer feel this way. As an example of what I mean, I will turn to a recent critique of capitalism that has gotten quite a bit of attention in the past few weeks for further analysis.


Cover of Paul Mason's new book to be published next week.
Cover of Paul Mason’s new book, upon which the article discussed here is based, to be published next week.

I was really happy to see Paul Mason’s article, The End Of Capitalism Has Begun, published in The Guardian this week. Obviously that’s a major global media outlet, so any aspect of anti-capitalism getting attention in such a place is a good thing. And indeed, there is a lot to appreciate in Mason’s article. His diagnosis of the present and ongoing crisis of capitalism is solid, where in its current manifestion, “neoliberalism was the first economic model in 200 years the upswing of which was premised on the suppression of wages and smashing the social power and resilience of the working class.”

His main point is in line with what has been called “cognitive capitalism,” or the observation that the dynamics of this “new” mode of capitalism “are profoundly non-capitalist” in the sense that, rather than facilitating production, capitalism seems to get in its own way in these new modalities of production. While there is definitely some truth & insight in these arguments, there are several critiques of Mason’s position. One is our own Sean Donahue, pointing out that Mason’s view of how feudalism transitioned into capitalism is flawed. While it’s true that there was a labor shortage brought about by the Black Plague, which therefore tipped the balance of power more in favor of the feudal working class, early capitalists via their Enclosure movements and looting wealth from the new world were able to manipulate these circumstances to their advantage:

“People were driven out of their communities and into the cities as communal land was forcibly seized and privatized and sold to people who had become wealthy as a result of Spain paying back its debts to British and other Western European creditors with gold and silver looted from the Americas… created not a shortage, but an abundance of available labor, which provided the workforce for British industrialization.”

In addition, George Caffentzis offers up critiques of the “cognitive capitalism” ideology in his book In Letters Of Blood And Fire, specifically the chapters “A Critique Of ‘Cognitive Capitalism’ ” and “Why Machines Cannot Create Value: Marx’s Theory Of Machines.” I won’t fully reproduce his detailed arguments here, but the essence of it is that theorists of cognitive capitalism underestimate Enclosure, ie, these “theorists’ argument concerning the withdrawal of capitalists from the production process does not quite reach its conclusion unless the very transformation process by which capitalism becomes itself is jettisoned” (Caffentzis 120).

Mason rightly learns from the Free software movement, which he refers to as the Open Source model, and calls for this methodology/philosophy to be expanded to other areas:

“If I could summon one thing into existence for free it would be a global institution that modelled capitalism correctly: an open source model of the whole economy; official, grey and black. Every experiment run through it would enrich it; it would be open source and with as many datapoints as the most complex climate models.”

I can understand his enthusiasm. I’ve been an advocate of Free software (I prefer this term to Open Source software, which was conceived basically as a way to market Free software to businesses by de-emphasizing the political & social benefits and emphasizing the practical methodology of developing software in the context of freedom) since I discovered it in the late 1990s. In 2000, when I was excited about the broader social implications of the Free Software movement, I wrote that Free software

“represents a test drive in a post-scarcity environment. Similarly, it can be seen as a socioeconomic experiment of global scale and with global repercussions. This experiment, as the next phase in the Information Revolution, will require us to ask new questions: How should economies be structured? Is it acceptable to put private profit ahead of public well-being? Is cooperative technical innovation scalable to areas outside of software development? The Free [software] social experiment will make answers to these questions clearer, provided we are wise enough to use the data we gather from this phase of the Information Revolution to decide how to invent our future.”

But by 2004, after I had come to understand Enclosure & The Commons more fully, my optimism had faded somewhat, as I expressed in The Virtual Enclosures:

“But the virtual commons is being enclosed; this enclosure will have a similar effect in both brutality and scope to the previous enclosure movements in history. The virtual enclosures threaten the very existence of the Internet as we know it, along with a person’s ability to access his or her data on his or her computer. We are moving into a future where … ownership of virtually all works created on computers will be controlled by software corporations, alienating the creative person from their creations; where advancing technologies will allow corporate interests to conduct pre-emptive strikes against all possible copyright violations; where ultimately, the mere thinking of certain copyrighted ideas will transform the thinker into a criminal.”

Indeed, we have seen these predictions come to pass in the past decade-plus, and I think that Mason underestimates the power of capitalism to adapt and impose itself onto any competing modality of production. We must not forget that Karl Marx believed the end of capitalism was imminent…. when he was writing in the mid-1800s. It has been the unfortunate oversight of many an anti-capitalist thinker or activist since then to continually underestimate capitalism’s ability to navigate each apocalypse that comes along, and ultimately turn the situation to its advantage by expanding its ability to exploit, enclose, and accumulate.

What Comes After?

Yet, my biggest critique of Mason’s work is the vagueness with which he talks about what will come after capitalism. He calls it, simply, “postcapitalism,” and does not talk much about what production will look like in this world:

“Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours. I call this postcapitalism.”

He then lists 3 changes brought about by information technology that, he believes, will facilitate the change. But he doesn’t talk much about the capitalist infrastructures in place, upon which these changes depend. Will the smartphone used by his “educated and connected human beings” be manufactured in a factory with suicide nets around it, to prevent workers from ending their misery? Will the environmental destruction from rare earth mining, which provides the raw materials for these technological commodities, continue under postcapitalism?

Imagination, Will, Reality

“The future exists first in imagination, then in will, then in reality.”
— Barbara Marx Hubbard

“In order to transform the world, it is necessary to see that transformation is possible, to move beyond the world in its “givenness,” recognizing the forces and limitations that constitute it as such. Humanity cannot do what it cannot imagine that it can do.”
Jason Read, “Towards a Bestiary of the Capitalist Imagination

“Bing! Bing! the light bulb of an idea
Buzz! Buzz! talking it over with neighbors or co-workers
Pow! Pow! telling truth to power.”
Peter Linebaugh, “Some Principles of The Commons,” from Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, & Resistance

It is precisely in imagining our future where, in my estimation, the gods are of primary importance. I will not presume to define “gods” in this article, for several reasons. Each person will have to define gods for themselves, in their own terms, so if I commit to a single definition here I am sure to alienate most of my readers. I will say that my own conception is between, inclusive of, and broader than both the polytheist definition where gods are literal enduring personalities we can encounter in our lives, with coherent personalities, wills, and ideas of their own, and the atheist/skeptical conception that gods are fantasy & delusion. I can navigate this apparent contradiction via consciousness. A few months ago, I wrote that

I don’t experience relationship with gods that manifest as coherent personalities. I’ve tried, and I haven’t given up that it may happen someday. I’d love that (at least I think I would….. as more than one of you have pointed out to me). I’ve spent a lot of time over the years, in meditation, in devotion, in prayer. I’ve burned candles, incense, and bonfires, sitting in contemplation, in service, honoring them, learning about their stories, their personalities. I give regular offerings, mindfully, “from the gods to the earth to us, from us to the earth to the gods, a gift for a gift.” And for me, it’s all just energy.

I realize that this paragraph was, in a sense, an invocation, or at the very least an invitation. Be careful what you wish for, right?

The point is, in order to re-enchant the world, we need to be open to these experiences, these presences, even if we don’t quite believe they are real. The world is bigger than the mechanistic, reductionist viewpoint upon which capitalism depends, and a willingness to see beyond our set of comfortable ideas — which may or may not include gods — is necessary. We must, at the very least, be open to the possibility of relationship with something larger than ourselves. Gnosis will be at the heart of the transformation away from capitalism, opening up the possibility that it doesn’t transform into something just as as oppressive and destructive, if not more so. When we are in better relationship with the world and everything in it, from our ecosystems to the creatures in it, from the memory of the ancestors lingering in every place to the land wights and nature spirits who dwell there, we will be more apt to protect the incredible gift of life on this planet. The experiences we have when we are out looking for gods inspire our imagination, clarify our will, and help us create a better reality.