In his book Apocalyptic Witchcraft, as well as his shorter essay Rewilding Witchcraft, one of Peter Grey’s central arguments is that contemporary paganism has been tamed by the standards of urbane bourgeois consumer society and the capitalist system that underlies it. He mocks what I call “Lifestyle Paganism” which he sees as a superficial expression of belief, identity and aesthetics (robes, rituals, multi-gods, pentragrams, Pantheacon) with little impact or effect on the dominant culture that look upon it as an amusing distraction.
This system, regardless of small steps we each personally take, is hegemonic and structurally dominant. His call is for the reclamation of the Witch as a transgressive force in response to this larger social order’s continued drive toward ecological collapse. In order to do this, he asks for a rewilding of our relationship to self, nature, society and cosmos.
What Grey is saying bares a family resemblance to those who call for a decolonization of minds, and practices in Post-colonial theory. Post-Colonial theory recognizes the insidious way in which the power and ideals of a dominant culture infiltrate and co-opt the consciousness and behavior of the disenfranchised.
We each have been subjected to a set of nature alienating values, beliefs, and practices which underlie everything we experience in urbane modernity. This colonization is woven into our architecture, our social norms, our ways of thinking, even our language. In essence, the normative culture is embedded in our subconscious, and the default state is one of profound alienation from the natural world, and thus ultimately ourselves. In order to create resistance to power, we must first decolonize our minds and practices.
In parallel, Peter calls for a fully present Animistic engagement with nature in order for Witchcraft to be more than a colorful effort at creative anachronism. No matter what robes, rituals, or gods we may adhere to, nature-centricity is a common thread that can unite Neopagans. The root of the shamanic tradition from which paganism emerges is the awareness of the underlying sacredness, intelligence and aliveness of all beings animate and inanimate. To be alienated from our own souls and the soul of nature (Anima – Mundi) is to spiral out in a variety of dysfunctions.
Symptomatic of this, a growing litany of voices both Pagan and Non Pagan are pointing out how this “Nature Deficit Disorder” increasingly expresses itself in rising rates of depression, anxiety, violence and addictive behaviors. The relatively nascent field of eco-psychology diagnoses this problematic relationship between mind and nature seen in the alarming trend of children’s increased immersion in video game and social media. Our domesticated children and their colonized imaginations no longer play in the woods and the wild, but online fantasy worlds constructed to siphon their attention and energy down the path of addictive consumption.
Grey’s perspective on Witchcraft positions itself firmly on one side of the split between radical Deep Ecology seen among Pagan members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) vs. liberal bourgeois corporatist environmentalism most clearly expressed in the Sierra Club. According to anarchism, this contrast between radical and liberal perspectives on the environment is not one of mere taste, preference, or opinion, but rather the depth or superficiality of one’s level of analysis of the conditions at hand and how invested one is in the system itself.
Rewilding isn’t a fad or fashion; it’s an adaptive response to an alienated social order and the inherent psychopathology and ecocide thereof. Rewilding is likely the first step in “Exodus” from Capitalist modernity. As Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber writes, our best hope may be in refusing to live in a dying world, but deciding to create an entirely different one:
“The theory of exodus proposes that the most effective way of opposing capitalism and the liberal state is not through direct confrontation but by means of what Paolo Virno has called “engaged withdrawal, “mass defection by those wishing to create new forms of community. One need only glance at the historical record to confirm that most successful forms of popular resistance have taken precisely this form. They have not involved challenging power head on (this usually leads to being slaughtered, or if not, turning into some—often even uglier—variant of the very thing one first challenged) but from one or another strategy of slipping away from its grasp, from flight, desertion, the founding of new communities.” (Graeber)
Like the Zapatistas who first marched on Mexico City with the classic Marxist ideal of claiming state power, to later return to their hills and valleys and “secede” from the Neo-Liberal system in order to practice and live their sacred life ways, we ourselves might have to do the same things in the coming years. These “Lines of Flight” from the “Striated” social order with its hierarchical control systems into more organic, bottom up “Rhizomatic” ways discussed by Deleuze in A Thousand Plateaus may be our best hope. To do this we need to pay attention to how we our reproducing the dominant culture even while we think we are part of the alternative.
It’s likely that as we go further into these transition times from Peak Oil (What Starhawk calls The Great Turning)…as our water supply continues to dry up, our weather patterns become increasingly extreme, and our social order, both domestic and international, tilts further towards collapse, the message of Apocalyptic and Rewilding Witchcraft will become only more resonant.
A rewilded Witchcraft expressed in activist social efforts (either in the form of direct action or the creation of alternatives via permaculture, art, and spiritual cooperatives) may serve as a rallying point for those of us that want to create new beautiful gardens as a counterpoint to techno-industrial collapse. In turn, the voice of lifestyle paganism will, as John Michael Greer says, become as “quaint and outdated as Theosophy, Spiritualism and Nehru jackets.”
Grey is asking us to both destroy old relationships and mindsets and create new ones. Such a dual approach is evident in the image of Pan who is both all destroyer and all creator: Panphage/Pangenetor…and Pan is the essence of Wilderness.
Nature Deficit Disorder
Spell of the Sensuous
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology
Wobblies and Zapatistas
An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory
A Thousand Plateaus