To accept Empire is to deny the dead, the tortured witches of our past and the tortured rebels dying in Empire’s prisons. To not fight Empire is to defy our own bodies, defile the land and destroy the bodies of others. To accept Empire is to become Empire.
From Rhyd Wildermuth
The following essay is adapted from Rhyd Wildermuth’s speech, “Witches In A Crumbling Empire,” to be republished as part of his next collection, Our Time of Springs, Our Time of Flames(August, 2018)
The Empire under which we all suffer, under whom we are all ruled, was born upon the factory floor and upon the witch’s stake.
Industrialised capitalism started in England around 1760. Before then, almost everything humans used was made by humans with human effort, without the input of petroleum. So, in the early 1700’s, any clothing you wore and any food you ate was made or grown completely without fossil fuels.
The first coal-fired factories were built in cities swollen with refugees from the surrounding areas. Those people had just lost all access to land and the means to support themselves because of laws called the Enclosure Acts. No longer could they raise animals and plants from the earth with their own two feet firmly planted on the ground; now, their only option was to stand on wood and stone factory floors for 14 hours a day making things for other people.
Humans are hard to control. Humans don’t like working all day for someone else. They have to eat, and piss, and shit, and rest. Many women bleed every moon, sometimes they get pregnant and have to care for their children.
But Coal doesn’t tire. Coal doesn’t show up to work late after a night of drinking or fucking. Coal doesn’t need a rest, doesn’t get menstrual cramps, doesn’t daydream about how life can be better. Coal also doesn’t demand wages.
So the great ‘revolution’ of industrialisation was the slow replacement of human labor with black carbon labor from the earth. In the Americas, the people called Black were also used to replace waged labor. In both cases, the rich tried to find a low-cost, easily-managed, fully-predictable means to gain wealth.
Slaves revolt, though, and kill their masters. Coal and oil blacken the cities and skies with soot, but burned through filters, the carbon becomes invisible, escapes quietly into the atmosphere, warming the earth at such imperceptible rates that it could be ignored until recently.
What could not be ignored was the tendency of humans to revolt against their masters, be they slaves or peasants, workers or servants. Humans don’t make very good machines, we are unpredictable, tire easily, and anyway would rather be creating art or eating, then doing monotonous work for little pay.
The same era which saw the birth of industrialised capitalism also saw the birth of all modern forms of government and control. The modern city, the nation-state, so-called Democracy, representative government, prisons resembling factories resembling schools which resemble prisons. It also saw the birth of the modern police and the political order under which we now live.
But what is Empire?
By Empire I mean America, but I also do not.
By Empire I mean Capitalism, but I also do not.
By Empire I mean colonization. I mean industrialisation. I mean the slaughter of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans. I mean the carbon in the air and the worker in the factory. I mean all the newly extinct species and all the dying forests. I mean the corporations which own the internet and the corporations who profit from the computers and smartphones you read this on.
By Empire, I mean the foreign wars. I mean an Arab woman cradling the corpse of her decapitated daughter and shaking her fist at the gay Black dude from Los Angeles who only joined the Army to get money to support his mother.
By Empire, I mean the Mexican child screaming as her father is taken away by an ICE agent whose grandparents fled the Nazi advance in Europe.
By Empire, I mean the Black father mourning his son killed by a cop whose ancestors sold themselves into indentured servitude rather than starve to death during the famine in Ireland.
By Empire, I mean the intersectional feminist writing essays about the exploitation of women and children on a computer made through the exploitation of Asian women and African children.
And by Empire I mean the Arab man who massacres gays in a nightclub to retaliate for atrocities none of those people committed.
By Empire, I mean the single white mother driving her disabled kid to a doctor’s appointment over roads lain by migrant workers who are about to get deported.
By Empire I mean the civitas and the polis. I mean civilization and the police, the laws and logic, the political order, the thou shalt nots and the prisons where you go when you refuse to listen.
But more than anything, I mean the Empire in each of you and the Empire in me.
I mean all that was once wild and raw and sacred in us that is now ground into machine-parts and mechanical obedience.
By Empire I mean you, and by Empire I mean me.
And finally, by Empire I mean this thing that is crumbling around us, gasping for air, begging us to keep it alive.
The Empire that is crumbling around us was born on the factory floors and the witch’s stake, and both were assaults on the human body.
Capitalism was born from the separation of people from the land and its first task was to make work independent of the seasons and to lengthen the workday beyond the limits of our endurance…. What we have not always seen is what the separation from the land and nature has meant for our body, which has been pauperized and stripped of the powers that pre-capitalist populations attributed to it.
If the first task of Capitalism was to separate us from land and nature, they have more than succeeded. One need only look at the vastly artificial surroundings we all live in, the devices we use to speak with each other, the manufactured foods and synthetic medicines. Can you walk outside your home and find something edible growing by the pavement? Do you know which birds share your neighborhood with you? Can you point to where precisely the sun will rise tomorrow morning without a compass? Without looking outside tonight or at the internet, which phase is the moon in?
But it’s useless to rail against this disconnection. What separates us from the land and nature is not a current assault in an ongoing struggle: the war was won by them long ago. We are an occupied people, often occupying occupied land cleared long before any of us were born.
If that war was lost, though, the other war is still on going. Says Federici again:
Mechanization—the turning of the body, male and female, into a machine—has been one of capitalism’s most relentless pursuits.
Capitalism has needed us to act like machines so we can fit into the system as mere, fully-interchangeable cogs. Many of use don’t fit, though: be it our bodies themselves or our failure to conform, the process of turning us into machines is never fully complete.
Those of us who gum up the gears aren’t welcome in the factory, but Empire has a place for us too.
Empire was born on the factory floor, and it was also born on the witch’s stake. Failure to file down your rough bits, refusal to conform to the will of the political order, and worst of all encouraging others to do the same will land you at best in jail, or riddled with mental-illnesses that were non-existent in pre-capitalist lands, suffocated with a crushed trachea for daring to sell loose cigarettes or bleeding to death in the street for looking non-white when the polis tried to enforce its will.
There are countless technological distractions and institutions which have helped us forget our bodies: the masturbatory fantasies of video games and pornography, the medicalisation of any bodily refusal to be a good worker. Gyms look like factories for a reason, for it’s in the mills and on the mechanical looms where we first lost the meaning of muscle and blood. And then there is clock time, our smartphones and alarm clocks, schools which teach kids to move from class to class to prepare them to move from task to task.
Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our body because it is the land and the body which tells you this is all wrong. The land screams as species go extinct, forests die, icecaps melt. Your body screams when you treat it as a machine.
Your body tells you this is all wrong. Starting from the body, you know you tire faster when you are doing meaningless work. You know the food on offer to you at the supermarkets is empty, you know that the air you breathe is often toxic. You know sitting for eight hours staring at a screen hurts more than just your eyes, that standing behind a counter slinging coffee to exhausted people makes you a poorly-paid drug dealer.
All that knowledge is what capitalism needs you not to know.
All those feelings are what Empire fears you’ll feel.
Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our bodies for another reason.
Your body is always in contact with something else, something outside yourself. Your feet, the lowest part of you, the easiest part to ignore until they hurt, they connect to the entire world-soul. Taking your shoes off, standing on the grass or the sand or stone, you become no longer a machine but a body again, part of something always bigger than yourself, with a different logic, a more intuitive time, a deeper truth.
Your feet on the earth, you cannot be disconnected from the earth and the seasons, because you are also the earth and its seasons. Work in summer is not work in winter, the time of your waking and the cycles of your sleeping follow a different rhythm fully separate from the time of money-making, the time of machines.
Capitalism needs you to forget this.
Witchcraft tells you to remember.
If Empire was born on the factory floor and on the witch’s stake, it spread into every last bit of our existence, making subjects out of each one of us. While Capitalism needed to separate us from the land and our bodies, Empire needed us to become passive subjects of the political order.
Passivity is not receptivity. As a gay man I can assure you, more action goes into receptive sex than merely closing your eyes and thinking about the Empire. I suspect most women would concur.
Receptivity opens us to the world of senses, of feelings, of meaning. You are being receptive now, taking my words into you, playing with them, weaving their meaning into the tapestry of you. But passivity makes you a victim, a mere tool in the hands of the powerful. Passivity is consumption, selection between lifestyle options, an identity defined not by what you do but by what you choose. Did you vote Democrat or Republican? Drink Coke or Pepsi? Use an iPhone or Android?
Passivity reduces will to mere consumer preference. No longer will to power but a mere checkbox on a ballot or a selection on a screen. No longer desire and suffering but mere distractions to dull the fatigue of work and the anxiety of alienation.
You cannot force someone to become passive except by long applications of torture. But there is another route, a slower one, by which you can conquer the will of others by telling them not ‘thou shalt not’ but ‘thou cannot.’ Like the God of Eden’s lies to the woman in the garden, we are told we cannot survive without capitalism, cannot be safe without police, cannot find meaning outside of waged work, cannot find love without cosmetics.
And so what we did not lose on the factory floor we lost with the death of witches. Not only the women with herbs and poison roots, not only the crones bearing stories from times before private property, not only the maidens urging worship in temples of wild lust, not only the mothers feeding us from their bodies. Not only them, but also them: the women who reminded us an entire world can be made not from city and machine but forest and dirt.
Not only them, but also the heretics, the mad, the dreamers, the rebels. The men dressed like women tearing down fences along with women drest like men, refusing the enclosure of the sacred commons and the seizure of land for the profit of the few. The indigenous elders gunned down by settlers, the traditional healers dead in the hulls of slave ships. All of them taught what Empire needed us to forget: the earth knows what the computer never will, that the body bleeds a liquid more powerful than petroleum.
With them gone, we started to believe we can-not. We cannot heal ourselves without pharmaceuticals, we cannot feed ourselves without factory farms. We cannot make our own clothes, cannot craft our own homes. We must now suckle at the toxic teat of the Market while it slaps us with an invisible hand.
We started to believe we cannot resist.
But in the screaming defiance of the immolated witches was a reminder: we can refuse to submit, even in death.
It took centuries to shape us into what we are now, passive sniveling subjects of Empire and Capital. Though this may seem long, we lived outside Empire much longer. Capitalism is new and short-lived, compared even to Feudalism. It differs only in its full permeation of all our existence, and it is for this reason I call it Empire.
It is also collapsing.
The climate change caused by Capitalism cannot be stopped any longer, and its effects already cause famines and resource wars throughout the world. Between 30,000 and 140,000 species go extinct every year now; at the beginning of the 1800’s, this number was no more than 1000 yearly. Cities are beginning to flood, water tables depleting, while the oil-wells which makes the entire Empire run are going dry. Climate change will increase the refugee crises currently fueling the nationalist parties in Europe and the US, and whether they are fleeing from resource wars or unmanned drone bombers, they are undoubtedly the first quakes of Empire’s impending collapse.
Empires always pompously declare themselves eternal. The British swore the sun would never set on them, the third reich was supposed to last 1000 years. Western Democratic Capitalist Empire declared itself ‘the end of history’ in the 1990’s, but of course Fukuyama’s prediction sealed its fate.
Empires have always tried to cheat death and this one is no different. But the crone that stands on the other side of death’s door revealed her trump card, and now few can deny what this means.
Some still cling to the vain hope that Donald Trump is merely an unfortunate set-back to the progress of civilization. But reversing civil protections, installing fascist theorists in positions of power, rattling the chains of other world leaders, building a wall to keep the Mexicans out—these are not mere reversals of Empire’s progress, they are Empire trying to save itself.
Consider this wall between the US and Mexico. See past the obvious racism of such a thing and its absurd cost to what’s lurking beneath the political veneer. Consider the impending flood of climate refugees: remember your geography, look at a map displaying where the major destruction will occur first, and suddenly Trump’s idea isn’t mere xenophobic delusion.
The increase in surveillance powers, the militarization of police forces, the dismantling of the courts and the rights they are sworn to protect, the stoking of fascist flames: these are not just the actions of a psychopath, but of an engineer shoring up the ruins of Empire.
The same is happening everywhere else in the world. The capitalists know we are remembering to resist again, and so they are raising again the stakes, piling faggots beneath them, waiting for our next sign of revolt.
To accept what is around us now, to call such things “good” and “necessary,” is to laugh in the faces of the screaming witches who died so this Empire could arise. To chase after like mongrel dogs the trinkets and crumbs the capitalists throw down to us on the floor–the “rights” and “freedoms” and all the glossy junk cluttering store shelves–is to jeer at the sorrow and sufferings of our ancestors hauled to work in chains or prodded into mills by the terror of starvation.
To accept Empire is to deny the dead, the tortured witches of our past and the tortured rebels dying in Empire’s prisons. To not fight Empire is to defy our own bodies, defile the land and destroy the bodies of others. To accept Empire is to become Empire.
To fight Empire is to stare in the face of our own deaths and laugh, knowing the worst that might happen is Empire might burn us, too.
But to the witches who risked the stake to avoid forever the factory floor, the insurrectionists who risked bullets to forever avoid submission, and any who risked the rage of Empire for the possibility that Empire might fall, the choice was an easy one.
So is ours.
Rhyd is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals Press and a co-editor of godsandradicals.org.
This is the first part in Wolves in the Interregnum, a two-part series.
“The old world is dying, the new world struggles to be born. Here in the interregnum arises morbid systems.” –Antonio Gramsci
“Increasingly, people are restless. The engineers group themselves into competing teams, but neither side seems to know what to do, and neither seems much different from the other. Around the world, discontent can be heard. The extremists are grinding their knives and moving in as the machine’s coughing and stuttering exposes the inadequacies of the political oligarchies who claimed to have everything in hand. Old gods are rearing their heads, and old answers: revolution, war, ethnic strife. Politics as we have known it totters, like the machine it was built to sustain. In its place could easily arise something more elemental, with a dark heart.” –The Dark Mountain Manifesto
The Wolf Trap
In what is now Germany, particularly in the area called Lower Saxony, a certain symbol appeared etched on stones and trees, demarcating forests left wild for hunting. In such old forests, the wolf, that heavily-culled European apex predator, still ran free, threatened only by ritualized royal chases in which an iron hook was used to trap them. The shape of the trap inspired those border symbols, which also bore its name: Wolfsangel (Wolf-Hook).
Centuries later, peasants angry at the increasingly authoritarian rule of princes and their refusal to honor ancient land-use customs revolted, wielding the symbol as their banner. In the early part of the 20th century, its most well-known use began, this time not as as symbol of revolt but of authority and Empire itself. Inspired by the 1910 German novel Der Wehrwolf, the Nazi Party and many military regiments adopted its use, which is how most of us know of it now.
The wolfsangel (also the Elder Futhork rune Eihwaz) perhaps best explains the struggle for mythic and ideological territory that has defined many of the conflicts between political forces since the birth of Liberal Democracy. Symbols, myths, and ideas seem to change hands, disappear from one place and reappear in another. Old gods and politics are re-tooled for new, darker uses, then again stolen back. The swastika appears on the feet of the Buddha, also the flag of the Nazis; Gramsci’s formulation of metapolitical change becomes abandoned by European leftists and picked up by the European New Right.
In a recent essay at Gods&Radicals, Peter Gaffney examines this process through Foucault’s reading of Nietzche:
“This is how Foucault understands Nietzsche’s concept of Entstehung, which he translates as l’émergence – or alternately as les points de surgissement (the moments, stages or positions of arising)–, by which a discourse always appears anew in the hands of historically contingent forces:
“Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose. The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing the rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them; controlling this complex mechanism, they will make it function so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules.”
There is a simpler and more raw way to envision this process, that of wars over land or sacred territory. Pope Boniface advised his priests to build their churches upon ancient pagan sites; old sacred wells where people prayed to Pagan goddesses in Europe are now all dedicated to Catholic saints and the Virgin. The sites remain, the power means something beyond the colonization and struggle. The poor and faithful still visit the sites of Druid mountains and Pagan temples, still utter prayers, but the words are different, serving different sacred orders.
It matters who holds that territory, and the wars of occupation and reclamation are fiercest at times when Empire loses its grip. Each of the three Fascist uprisings in Europe occurred at times when Liberal Democracy began to crumble, the ‘interregnum’ in which Gramsci warned ‘monsters’ (or morbid systems) awoke.
We are in a similar period.
In each previous instance, Communists and Anarchists relentlessly ceded mythic territory to the nationalist forces. Fascists have always better understood the relationship of power and aesthetic, because they have no qualms about using them. Leftists still fail to heed Gramsci’s analysis, and rather than employ their own mythic imaginings to awaken a new world against the dying of the old, they choose now (as they did last century) to side with the Empire, that “Liberal center,” which in all three instances proved not only to be poor allies, but eager assassins when the fascist threat finally manifested.
Liberal Democracy is failing again. Capitalism has entered another crisis stage, desperately seeking new resources to extract from ever-dwindling wells. The altars of Progress and Modernity demand offerings, and the priests who tend them are sharpening blades, ready to begin new sacrifices.
Eilhwaz, the wolfsangel, is a powerful symbol. It symbolizes Yew, the graveyard tree, the acceptance of death’s inevitability that leads to heroic acts of reckless courage. As a boundary marker it warned those outside the wild that past its etched symbol roamed death, while granting permission to all those on the other side of it to use violence against what passed from its boundary into the settled lands.
From experience, I also know it to be a most powerful warding rune. It trips up those who stalk your secret meetings, protects from surprise, guards territory, and acts exactly as its name suggests: hooking wolves into a struggle to the death. No counter-magic have others found against my uses of it, though those thus trapped can, with a strong enough will, try to use it to tug back (an ensuing struggle much like we might imagine a wolf hooked by a chain held in the hands of a man might have been).
The Wolfsangel was first shown to me in a vision, the last in a series of four glyphs I learned to use during ancestral work. I have used it since, even after I learned a year later that it was symbol co-opted by the Nazis. While the antifascist ‘left’ has shown themselves quite willing to cede territory in order to keep their liberal allies, I have no intention to, anymore than I will give up the use of the wolfsangel.
That stubborness, that refusal to give up what is mine, what is ours by right of ideological and revolutionary ancestors (of blood or otherwise), is the guiding strategy of this essay. It is also the only way to neuter a threat which exists only by our permission.
On the 18th of February this year, several hundred people gathered to hear a man speak, one who’s dedicated years to studying unpopular European philosophers, seeking knowledge from gods of death and war, and cobbling together an analysis of Modernity’s failings and what might be built from its ruins.
Actually, two men spoke on that subject that day, to two different crowds on two different parts of the planet. Both speakers were ‘gay’ men, though reject that identity in favor of self-determination. Both shape their politics of the world around an aesthetic of wild forest, unrestrained humanity, and a refusal to accept Liberal Democracy’s pretensions of peace and progress.
The first man (whose name I will withhold for a short time) presented an hour-long speech on the west coast of the United States. The other presented a 20-minute talk called “Violence is Golden” in a castle beer hall to a group of European Identitarians at the Institut für Staatspolitik. His name was Jack Donovan.
By now you have probably heard his name. You will read (and I will write) it much more than I or you prefer. So be it, though—to look away is to hide from something we ourselves have birthed and empowered, and something only we can stop.
I will not repeat the clumsy, panicked mistakes in the various recent exposés running through your news feed. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s piece in March was deeply flawed, Slate’s piece just last week was even more a failure. These two articles, as well as many other criticisms, have failed completely to explain his appeal while simultaneously missing the core threat of his ideas. These and many other failures betray a deep and intentional blindness particularly within American anti-fascist and ‘leftist’ thought, the product both of a marriage to Liberal Democratic hegemony and an almost ecstatic abdication of revolutionary territory.
Thus, one cannot accurately criticize Jack Donovan without also criticizing the anti-fascist left who has taken upon themselves the task of (ineptly) opposing him. Likewise, one cannot speak about the dangers the Wolves of Vinland (and Paul Waggener’s “Operation Werewolf”) without also telling long-stifled truths about modern society and the various Pagan, Environmental, and Anarchist movements which the Wolves of Vinland are currently poised to supplant.
This is not a comfortable task, and it is ironic that there is more risk to me in this essay than to its intended targets. That risk is not from the Wolves of Vinland’s brutalist-sculpted ‘warriors’ or their aesthetic of violence. I do not fear the muscles and fight-training of Waggener or Donovan (come at me, bro). Rather, it is from the established orthodoxy of American antifascism and its slavish worship of Liberal Democratic conceits that the vast majority of criticism for this work will likely come.
Already my admission that I am intimately acquainted with the Wolfangel has put me at risk of being considered a crypto-fascist, because many antifascist theorists police their borders not with an eye towards reclaiming lost territory, but with a terror of what lurks beyond the well-lit street lights in the dark forests into which the light of cities can never reach.
Despite the risk, I need to write this essay. Not just because I foresee further territory being abandoned as the American left cuts out its insurrectionary heart and offers it on the altars of progress, praying that the Empire can be saved. Nor do I write this only because the future Jack Donovan and the Wolves of Vinland crave is one I do not want to see in this world. More than anything, I write this essay because, on the same day that Jack Donovan helped provide the intellectual justification for violence to a strengthening European Identitarian movement, I did the same thing for a growing Pagan anti-capitalist movement. I was the other speaker that day, 6000 miles away.
Since noting the dark poetry of such simultaneity, I’ve given extensive time to reading Donovan’s work and regretting that our similarities did not end there. It’s precisely these similarities, however, which both demand that I write this essay while also making such an essay dangerous. We occupy similar territory, outside the urbs of Liberal Democratic empire where barbarians and wolves dwell, past the boundary markers where the reach of the civitas and the polis is declawed.
I know this land, these gods, and these ideas. And I will not give them up.
Barbarians in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.
–Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
“In the absence of an equally compelling counter-narrative, a significant portion of the masses will also embrace fascism, and history will be left to repeat itself.”
–Alley Valkyrie, Propaganda in the Age of Fascism
No discussion of Jack Donovan, the Wolves of Vinland, or Operation Werewolf can truly begin without focusing on their aesthetic. Many have tried, reducing their images to caricature, missing their sublime and intoxicating coherence, dismissing it all as if image had no power. We shall not make the same mistake.
Take a few minutes and scroll through Jack Donovan’s Instagram feed. Linger on the photos. Feel what they convey, let them wash over you. Try to enter the world they narrate. While doing so, note the repeated use of certain filters, the austerity of the backgrounds. Greys, sepias, overuse of ‘Structure’ edits.
What Donovan wants you to see is that the Modern world is too new, too garish, that there is no place within it for people like him nor for people like you. One imagines he hates the imposed efficiency of florescent lights, prefers the slant of sunlight at the end of day, would use lanterns if his eyesight were better, and is allergic to gaudy colors. His is not the aesthetic of a consumer. The exact polar opposite of his proposed milieu is a Walmart, bright lights glaring off the cellophane-wrapped chemically-colored products which define most American lives. Instead, behind him are unfinished concrete walls in gyms or forests, the decayed urban or the feral wild, an old-world feel clipping out the $6 latte area of Portland, Oregon where he until recently lived.
Aesthetic is narrative. Aesthetic tells a story, and Jack Donovan’s story is of anti-modernism. It is not just because he is anti-modern, but he also senses what his increasing fan-base knows and most anti-fascists refuse to admit: the modern is fucking awful. The modern is alienating, full of empty images and promises after which we all chase. Progress brings us a new iPhone each year and more flavors of Doritos, jobs in front of screens and new identities to try on and less and less land in which to play tribe with your friends.
The paradox, of course, is that it is precisely because of the modern that we experience his anti-modern vision, the same convoluted trap in which any critic of Liberal Democratic empire finds themselves. As Walter Benjamin noted, we are never in relationship to the subject of an image, but rather in relationship with a lens and a screen. We only ever interface with the production of images, the machinery of mass-aesthetic.
Donovan’s aesthetic attempts to escape this, but it cannot. What Donovan portrays is crafted just as any other selfie is, posed, selected, filtered and cropped, uploaded into The Feed for us all to see. It is an anti-modern aesthetic made possible only by the modern, a resistance to Empire generated by Empire like Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein waiting with Big Brother’s pre-scripted revolt. In this way, though, he is no different from any of us. The Antifa selfie, the anti-capitalist meme: we do the same.
This paradox in which we are all trapped is not limited to the mere reproduction of the anti-modern by modern means. It is an oppositional aesthetic, crafted constantly in response to the modern. What is anti-modern is determined by the modern itself, just as what is anti-oppressive within social justice is determined by the oppressive, what is ‘left’ is determined by what is ‘right.’
Audre Lourde’s statement that “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house,” while originally an attack on the bourgeois goals of white feminists, just as easily describes the perpetual paradox of all resistance to the Modern.
A Body Politic
Key to understanding Donovan’s aesthetic, then, is that he is merely retooling the master’s narrative, determined not by some mastery of the will but an almost adolescent act of opposition. Inverting Lourde’s point, Donovan attempts to look like the master himself, becoming what his chosen enemies fear him to be.
Towards this end, his physique is his primary weapon, one that can command erotic respect from fully hetero-men as well as gays. He wants–needs–you to think he is hot, and even his feminist critics often write slobberingly about his body even as they then attack it.
This is his success: the masculinity he wears is bold, brazen, unapologetic: it draws the sort of followers he desires while offending those socialized to find such displays of virility indicative of ‘toxic masculinity.’
This aesthetic politics of the body is part of the core ideology not just of Jack Donovan but also of Operation Werewolf, a site run and founded by Paul Waggener. To understand its appeal, the imagery of its manifesto must be approached the same way the visual aesthetic must be: fully felt, with an eye on the backgrounds and filters:
“Operatives can be found in countries across the world, dripping sweat on the floor of their spartan-style garage weight room, leaving blood on the dirt in the backyard boxing ring, or bringing their feral competitive style to powerlifting meets, MMA events, bars, back alleys and the savage streets of crumbling cities. They are not products of their environment- instead they change the landscape and environment around them, forgers of destiny, architects of their own becoming. They make the flesh strong, knowing that it is the only fit conveyance for a strong mind and an iron will- theirs is a mindset that accepts no weakness.
Some are solitary practitioners, performing the rituals of life and death amongst the ruins of modern civilization, lone wolves howling songs of destruction and new growth in the woods that encroach on the edges of the rotting Empire, waiting for the fall. Others have made it their mission to seek each other out, forming militaristic divisions, chapters led by their strongest member, creating a war-band that seeks to carve its own myth, to create its own saga of power and might- men and women challenging each other to strive ever higher.”
Like this manifesto (powerful, until you realize it’s a sloppy pastiche of Dark Mountain’s manifesto and Peter Grey’s Rewilding Witchcraft), the articles on Operation Werewolf exort the reader towards a vision of self-fulfillment on the “edges of the rotting Empire, waiting for the fall.” Again, sweaty gym-forged bodies with wild forest and concrete as backdrop, perfectly selected sepia filters assuring you they aren’t currently huddled over screens masturbating to porn.
Readers for whom the notion of sweat, brawls, and ‘accepting no weakness’ is off-putting should be reminded that it is supposed to repulse you. It is not to you whom they are writing, any more than it is to the civilized urban feminist that Jack Donovan bares his torso.
Resist, however, the inclination to dismiss this as negative: while Operation Werewolf is not the body-positivity of urban social justice, it is nevertheless the positivity of a body stretched, strained, and repeatedly broken to test its limits and ‘forge the will.’
Here, many critics fall back upon accusations of ‘ableism’ or ‘fat-shaming.’ Without doubt there is no place inscribed into their aesthetic for the overweight person, nor for the chronically-ill, yet such critiques (however true within the framework of liberal social justice politics) fall utterly flat. They are not attempting to build an inclusive ideology, but rather one of difference and exclusion. Dismissing them on these grounds, however morally-satisfying, is utterly useless.
Antifascist responses to such rhetoric through the social justice framework not only fail, but expose an ignored and suppressed difference in their own ranks, best seen within the difference between Liberal and Leftist feminism. The former, which is the predominate form within Social Justice, argues that patriarchal violence is the primary cause of bodily oppression. On the other hand, Leftist iterations (Marxist, post-colonialist) locate the cause of such oppression (anti-disabled, anti-fat, etc.) in the Capitalist’s need to turn humans into workers and the State’s need to turn humans into subjects.
From a Liberal feminist (‘bourgeois’ or ‘white’ feminism) view, any politics or ideology which does not treat all bodies as equal is patriarchal, and each oppression (ableism, transphobia, etc.) is an additional variant of patriarchal rule (consider Liberal feminist statements such as “homophobia is rooted in hatred of women”). To undermine the patriarchy and achieve equality within that framework, all bodies must be accorded the same worth and access, since every exclusion is a reproduction of patriarchal oppression.
Marxist and post-colonial feminist frameworks dismiss such utopianism in favor of the abolition of the conditions which equates the worth of bodies to what can be derived from them: that is, Capitalism. A disabled or chronically-ill person is ‘worth less’ (paid less) under capitalism because they can produce less for their bosses (who are usually men, but often also women). They are valued less because their labor cannot be exploited as easily.
To a Liberal feminist, patriarchy is the problem and the problems of capitalism derive from the patriarchy, not from capitalism itself. Within the feminism of Marxists and post-colonialists, Patriarchy is merely the functional aesthetic of the oppression of bodies, while capitalist control of the body is the core problem.
What Operation Werewolf advocates does not directly conflict this latter, insurrectionist feminism. If anything, people of any gender hoping to be physically strong enough to fight the inevitable police and military backlash against revolutionary actions could benefit from such exortations. If you want to learn to fight Nazis, you’ll need first to learn how to fight.
Too often, though, discussions regarding expanding the capacity of the body are dismissed, labeled ‘ableist’ or ‘fat-shaming,’ and even potentially fascist.
A particularly poignant example of this is the reaction to an essay from Peter Grey last year, a writer and publisher who has repeatedly held the line against fascist incursions into esotericism, including pulling his work from use in publications wherein fascist writers appear. Within Pagan, witch, radical, and esoteric communities, his essay Forging the Body of the Witch was held up by some as proof that the (very not-fascist) writer was potentially fascist, or at the very least engaging in ableism and fat-shaming.
Another case in point: Silvia Federici’s essay, In Praise of the Dancing Body, was similarly attacked as ableist because she advocates dancing as a form of bodily resistance and suggests that capitalism has alienated us from our bodies through extensive medicalization.
Anti-civilizationist, autonomous Marxist, anarchist, and other radical writers have similarly come under such friendly-fire attacks so that, as of now, the only people actually putting forward a framework in which the potential capabilities of the body are fully-embraced are men like Jack Donovan and Paul Waggener.
This is the first example of how Leftists have ceded territory in which fascists can thrive. Leftists abandoned a political framework which embraces the body–both in its weaknesses as well as its strengths–in favor of one which disfavors (and even attacks) any celebration of human capacity as inherently oppressive.
In such a world, the muscular bodies of a factory, farm, or construction worker—the very people whom Leftists once saw as a revolutionary force—are to be hidden, minimized, or even derided, lest those who do not have such bodies or cannot get them feel excluded from insurrectionist discourse.
This is why antifascist criticisms of Donovan (etc.) fall flat. There is nothing inherently fascist about the body work he and Operation Werewolf advocate: indeed, it is also something embraced by many suppressed forms of feminism as well. It is only territory they occupy, colonized by a fascist aesthetic. Such territory once belonged to the Left who have become all too long happy to abandon it.
Doing so means that fascists are then allowed to run free through it and claim it as their own.
Many essays attacking Jack Donovan particularly center their critique on his aesthetic masculinity, effectively reducing his threat to his maleness. While the Slate piece devotes extensive time to his aesthetic of virility, even to the point of slobbering affection (“A beautifully muscular man of 42 who has perfected a masculine scowl…he functions as beefcake for the neofascist cause,”) the SPLC’s essay reduces his entire appeal to that of his overt maleness, inscribing him into Alex Di Branco’s thesis that it is misogyny itself which is animating new fascist movements.
Both make precisely the same mistake and only strengthen the allure of his raw, uncivilized male aesthetic.
For a constructed masculine aesthetic to be a political aesthetic, it must have a nemesis. Fortunately for him, his critics easily supply that role, reducing him to his masculinity in precisely the same way they accuse men of doing to women. For most of his critics, Donovan is a meat-head, a thug, a dumb man who probably doesn’t use deodorant. Such reductions reproduce the same ‘patriarchal’ modes of dismissal: a woman is just her tits, Donovan is just his muscles.
Like an Antifa protester lobbing a tear gas canister back at the police, Donovan is able swiftly to redeploy these reductions to expand his audience. To understand how, consider the sort of people to whom he appeals: men like him, displaced, uncomfortable in the world, first unsure of and then later angry about the absurd rules of civilization, unable to find meaning except by escape into romantic notions of heroism and courage now that the jobs are all gone overseas.
To such men, seeking something mythic, something to make them feel like they have a place in the world, ridicule of their masculinity only further entrenches their sense of alienation. When a critic ridicules his, Donovan need only hold up their insult before his audience, and suddenly his male tribalism doesn’t even need a sales pitch.
Further, Jack Donovan’s deep intelligence is easily missed by critics who are tricked by his aesthetic. On Instagram he stands shirtless, inked, holding a chainsaw; elsewhere he is wearing hunting gear, or grunting in a gym, drilling wood, wearing a baseball cap. He looks rural, the sort of working-class man urban liberals dismiss immediately as smelly, uneducated, and crass.
Here Donovan is able to leverage an inherent prejudice within what passes for the Left in America: its anti-rural, anti-working class sentiment.
Donovan presents as the sort of man who drives large trucks, thinks forests should be clear-cut, drinks Budweiser in front of football games, and would bash the head in of a man at a rest stop who stared at his crotch. As such, he becomes too easily dismissed, his arguments reduced to mere grunts in, as the SPLC article put it, the “chorus of moaning that emanates from the “Manosphere.”
Donovan is no doubt aware of this, and wields these prejudices deftly against his critics. It is a trick I know well myself: I am a 6 foot 1, gruff-voiced, ‘masculine-presenting’ man who talks more like a ‘bro’ than a theorist. The disconnect between my appearance and my intelligence often puts critics and fans alike off-guard. Thus when my critics attempt to reduce my arguments to my male appearance, they will often appear shallow or uninformed in public forums. This same mechanism works in Jack Donovan’s favor.
More so, by targeting his masculine presentation, critics also re-inforce liberal urban elitism and undermine any other critique they offer. To reduce Donovan to his maleness is to reduce him to his perceived identity, alienating those who see misandry as unhelpful (or even dangerous) as well as lower-class men for whom muscles, power-tools, and backyard construction projects are inherent parts of daily life and work, rather than cultivated threats against women.
This is another territory ceded by the Left. The bodies (and the accompanying concerns of the body) of poor and working-class men–unless their maleness can also be shown to intersect with at least one other oppression identity– are all but completely dismissed in American leftist discourse. It should not surprise us, then, that the aesthetic of overt, unapologetic masculinity which Donovan, Waggener, and the Wolves of Vinland celebrate would appeal to those ignored men.
For such men, the aesthetic of brute maleness accompanied by deep thought and independent will shall always be more appealing than what Liberalism has to offer. Marxists and Anarchists once offered them something too, but if they still do, it cannot be found in current American antifascist discourse.
To see how well Donovan reclaims Leftist territory for his own, consider Donovan’s book on male desire, Androphilia. Written in 2006, it advances a vision of homosexuality not as a genetically-deterministic identity class, but of a variation or subset of male desire. The consequences of such a view are that male-male desire is a manifestation of human choice, rather than the current Liberal dogma that gays are ‘born this way.’
Within the vast majority of gay-rights organizing, the insistence that homosexuality is determined by biology rather than being a choice has become divine law. This ironically leaves only anti-homosexual Christian Evangelicals asserting that gay men actually have any agency in their sexual desire (by insisting it can and should be changed.)
The historical reason why it became Liberal consensus that homosexuality is an innate, essential, and biologically-determined identity has nothing to do with science. As in most cases, scientific theory follows political will, and this position was politically strategic.
In order to counter the moral arguments against homosexual sex, gay-rights activists presented homosexual desire as an immutable, scientifically-determined way of being. In such a framework, since gays had no choice but to engage in homosexual behavior, moral arguments that demanded they change their behavior made no sense.
This strategy certainly helped gays gain legal status within most Liberal Democracies, but it also stole from gays belief in their agency. Thus, I as a man who desires men actually have no say in the matter, because my genes make me desire men. The “Leftist” position now, at least the Social Justice position, depoliticizes will and individual choice, adopting the very same Nazi logic which located social-identity (Homosexual, Jew) in the body and then destroyed the body to destroy the identity.
Donovan’s arguments in Androphilia cunningly leverage this transposition. Arguing that male homosexual desire is just another configuration of male desire is really the more liberatory position. Even more (unfortunately) to his credit, rather than arguing to heterosexual men that they should accept male-male desire on account of Liberal Democratic rights, he argues that heterosexual men should embrace their already-existent desire for males.
The territory here that Donovan is able to claim—and the primary reason his ideas have so much resonance—is precisely what was ceded by Leftists who hitched their liberatory politics to the dreams of Liberal Democratic progress. While no doubt forged from a sense of pragmatic urgency (homosexuals were—and are—killed at rather high rates), the political subjectivity and loss of agency such a politics created cannot be easily undone.
Attempts to offer another narrative are often virulently attacked. I have never felt I was ‘born this way,’ yet to write openly about this is to elicit some rather intense rage from social justice activists who see such a position as a sign of my ‘heteronormative privilege,’ that I am not ‘queer enough’ to speak on such matters, or that I must have ‘internalized homophobia.’
In a situation where the leftist position insists sexual selection is innate and pre-determined, it should not surprise anyone that, as according to the Slate article, gays are being attracted to fascism. But contrary to the conclusion of the author, Donovan’s position offers homosexuals back the agency that Liberal Democracy stripped from them in return for protections.
This is not due to anything revolutionary or even original in Donovan’s thinking, but the same abdication of territory (in this case, an abdication of will) that leftists have elsewhere enacted.
Masculinity as Simulacrum
Returning to the matter of Donovan’s particular aesthetic: Donovan presents a vision of a man who is fully in touch with his will, comfortable with his desire for other men, unapologetic about his body, and unconcerned with what anyone thinks of him. In his books we see this aesthetic turn into an entire ethic, a religious redemption of the masculinity which bourgeois feminism sees as the primary cause of oppression.
Here we can re-introduce crucial discussion regarding Donovan’s misogyny, and also see how all these abandoned leftists positions re-animate into something quite morbid. Donovan loathes women. Androphilia blames almost every horrible thing on women; gay men shop because of women, gay men kill themselves because they are trying to be like women, trans women are men who have internalized everything that feminists told them about themselves.
His later books, The Way of Men and Becoming a Barbarian, both repeat this same ressentiment. Men are soft because of women, men stay at home instead of adventure because of them. Men don’t have enough men-only spaces because women expect to be everywhere, etc.. It all starts to sound so absurd that it’s easy to miss that he is parodying the excesses of bourgeois feminism in reverse.
In fact, his entire construct of hypermasculine existence could have been constructed by bourgeois feminism itself. If there is anything truly tragic about Jack Donovan’s vision of maleness—the one which fills the pages of his books and his Instagram feed–it is that it was created by the very same feminism which he so deeply loathes.
Such a reality, however, does not reduce its power.
Jean Baudrillard expanded Walter Benjamin’s work on aesthetics by noting how, now that we only have reproduction of art, we now also only have reproduction of politics. The ‘real’ we imagine is always a copy, a simulation of the real. Those copies and simulations become how we determine what is real, affecting our behaviour and the construction of our identities.
Whereas once the aesthetic was the visual representation of a way of being, the aesthetic is now our only blueprint. We do not know what it is like to be masculine except by the representation of the masculine, anymore than we know what it is to be anti-modern without representations of the anti-modern.
More dangerous, however, is that the negatives of images reproduce themselves as well. The aesthetic of hyper-masculinity from which Donovan and Waggener build their politics is produced from the negative space of liberal feminist critiques which reduce men to enemy, alpha-oppressor, toxic, and dangerous.
But negative space is never truly empty, just as territory no longer claimed is never truly vacant. We should be hardly surprised, then, that Wolves have moved into the places we have abandoned, inhabiting ideological homes which were once ours.
It is not clear, however, that many have the strength or will to kick them out.
Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch.
He lives in Rennes, Bretagne.
Like Fascism? Love Capitalism? Then whatever you do, don’t pre-order Dr. Bones’ new book, Curse Your Boss, Hex The State, Steal Back The World…
The history of the body is the history of human beings, for there is no cultural practice that is not first applied to the body. Even if we limit ourselves to speak of the history of the body in capitalism we face an overwhelming task, so extensive have been the techniques used to discipline the body, constantly changing, depending on the shifts in labor regimes to which our body was subjected to. Moreover, we do not have one history but different histories of the body: the body of men, of women, of the waged worker, of the enslaved, of the colonized.
A history of the body then can be reconstructed by describing the different forms of repression that capitalism has activated against it. But I have decided to write instead of the body as a ground of resistance, that is the body and its powers – the power to act, to transform itself and the world and the body as a natural limit to exploitation.
There is something we have lost in our insistence on the body as something socially constructed and performative. The view of the body as a social [discursive] production has hidden the fact our body is a receptacle of powers, capacities and resistances, that have been developed in a long process of co-evolution with our natural environment, as well as inter-generational practices that have made it a natural limit to exploitation.
By the body as a ‘natural limit’ I refer to the structure of needs and desires created in us not only by our conscious decisions or collective practices, but by millions of years of material evolution:the need for the sun, for the blue sky and the green of trees, for the smell of the woods and the oceans, the need for touching, smelling, sleeping, making love.
This accumulated structure of needs and desires, that for thousands of years have been the condition of our social reproduction, has put limits to our exploitation and is something that capitalism has incessantly struggled to overcome.
Capitalism was not the first system based on the exploitation of human labor. But more than any other system in history, it has tried to create an economic world where labor is the most essential principle of accumulation. As such it was the first to make the regimentation and mechanization of the body a key premise of the accumulation of wealth. Indeed, one of capitalism’s main social tasks from its beginning to the present has been the transformation of our energies and corporeal powers into labor-powers.
In Caliban and the Witch, I have looked at the strategies that capitalism has employed to accomplish this task and remold human nature, in the same way as it has tried to remold the earth in order to make the land more productive and to turn animals into living factories. I have spoken of the historic battle it has waged against the body, against our materiality, and the many institutions it has created for this purpose: the law, the whip, the regulation of sexuality, as well as myriad social practices that have redefined our relation to space, to nature, and to each other.
Capitalism was born from the separation of people from the land and its first task was to make work independent of the seasons and to lengthen the workday beyond the limits of our endurance. Generally, we stress the economic aspect of this process, the economic dependence capitalism has created on monetary relations, and its role in the formation of a wage proletariat. What we have not always seen is what the separation from the land and nature has meant for our body, which has been pauperized and stripped of the powers that pre-capitalist populations attributed to it.
Nature has been inorganic body and there was a time when we could read the winds, the clouds, and the changes in the currents of rivers and seas. In pre-capitalist societies people thought they had the power to fly, to have out-of body experiences, to communicate, to speak with animals and take on their powers and even shape-shift. They also thought that they could be in more places than one and, for example, they could come back from the grave to take revenge of their enemies.
Not all these powers were imaginary. Daily contact with nature was the source of a great amount of knowledge reflected in the food revolution that took place especially in the Americas prior to colonization or in the revolution in sailing techniques. We know now, for instance, that the Polynesian populations used to travel the high seas at night with only their body as their compass, as they could tell from the vibrations of the waves the different ways to direct their boats to the shore.
Fixation in space and time has been one of the most elementary and persistent techniques capitalism has used to take hold of the body. See the attacks throughout history on vagabonds, migrants, hobo-men. Mobility is a threat when not pursued for work-sake as it circulates knowledges, experiences, struggles. In the past the instruments of restraint were whips, chains, the stocks, mutilation, enslavement. Today, in addition to the whip and the detention centers, we have computer surveillance and the periodic threat of epidemics as a means to control nomadism.
Mechanization—the turning of the body, male and female, into a machine—has been one of capitalism’s most relentless pursuits. Animals too are turned into machines, so that sows can double their littler, chicken can produce uninterrupted flows of eggs, while unproductive ones are grounded like stones, and calves can never stand on their feet before being brought to the slaughter house.
I cannot here evoke all the ways in which the mechanization of body has occurred. Enough to say that the techniques of capture and domination have changed depending on the dominant labor regime and the machines that have been the model for the body.
Thus we find that in the 16 and 17th centuries (the time of manufacture) the body was imagined and disciplined according to the model of simple machines, like the pump and the lever. This was the regime that culminated in Taylorism, time-motion study, where every motion was calculated and all our energies were channeled to the task. Resistance here was imagined in the form of inertia, with the body pictured as a dumb animal, a monster resistant to command.
With the 19th century we have, instead, a conception of the body and disciplinary techniques modeled on the steam engine, its productivity calculated in terms of input and output, and efficiency becoming the key word. Under this regime, the disciplining of the body was accomplished through dietary restrictions and the calculation of the calories that a working body would need. The climax, in this context, was the Nazi table, that specified what calories each type of worker needed. The enemy here was the dispersion of energy, entropy, waste, disorder. In the US, the history of this new political economy began in the 1880s, with the attack on the saloon and the remolding of the family-life with at its center the full-time housewife, conceived as an anti-entropic devise, always on call, ready to restore the meal consumed, the body sullied after the bath, the dress repaired and torn again.
In our time, models for the body are the computer and the genetic code, crafting a dematerialized, dis-aggregated body, imagined as a conglomerate of cells and genes each with her own program, indifferent to the rest and to the good of the body as a whole. Such is the theory of the ‘selfish gene,’ the idea, that is, that the body is made of individualistic cells and genes all pursuing their program a perfect metaphor of the neo-liberal conception of life, where market dominance turns against not only group solidarity but solidarity with own ourselves. Consistently, the body disintegrates into an assemblage of selfish genes, each striving to achieve its selfish goals, indifferent to the interest of the rest.
To the extent that we internalize this view, we internalize the most profound experience of self-alienation, as we confront not only a great beast that does not obey our orders, but a host of micro-enemies that are planted right into our own body, ready to attack us at any moment. Industries have been built on the fears that this conception of the body generates, putting us at the mercy of forces that we do not control. Inevitably, if we internalize this view, we do not taste good to ourselves. In fact, our body scares us, and we do not listen to it.
We do not hear what it wants, but join the assault on it with all the weapons that medicine can offer: radiation, colonoscopy, mammography, all arms in a long battle against the body, with us joining in the assault rather than taking our body out of the line of fire. In this way we are prepared to accept a world that transforms body-parts into commodities for a market and view our body as a repository of diseases: the body as plague, the body as source of epidemics, the body without reason.
Our struggle then must begin with the re-appropriation of our body, the revaluation and rediscovery of its capacity for resistance, and expansion and celebration of its powers, individual and collective.
Dance is central to this re-appropriation. In essence, the act of dancing is an exploration and invention of what a body can do: of its capacities, its languages, its articulations of the strivings of our being. I have come to believe that there is a philosophy in dancing, for dance mimics the processes by which we relate to the world, connect with other bodies, transform ourselves and the space around us.
From dance we learn that matter is not stupid, it is not blind, it is not mechanical, but has its rhythms, has its language, and it is self-activated and self-organizing, Our bodies have reasons that we need to learn, rediscover, reinvent. We need to listen to their language as the path to our health and healing, as we need to listen to the language and rhythms of the natural world as the path to the health and healing of the earth. Since the power to be affected and to affect, to be moved and move, a capacity which is indestructible, exhausted only with death, is constitutive of the body, there is an immanent politics residing in it: the capacity to transform itself, others, and change the world.
is a feminist activist, teacher and writer. Her published works include: Revolution at Point Zero. Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (2012); Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004); Enduring Western Civilization: The Construction of Western Civilization and its “Others” (1994 editor).
“A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost. The ghost of Communism…”
From Helen McFarlane’s English translation of “The Communist Manifesto”
Site & Publishing News
It’s been 80 weeks since Gods&Radicals officially started. Since then, we’ve posted 381 articles by over 60 writers, published two issues of our journal A Beautiful Resistance and one other publication, A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer. And we’re just getting started.
The call for submissions for the next issue of A Beautiful Resistance will be September 1st, 2016, and we currently have a publication date scheduled for Imbolc of 2017. Due to the unanticipated popularity of the journal, we’re adding staff, retailers, and working to overhaul our distribution process to get copies to subscribers faster.
We also have another print project that will come out before then–more information on that soon!
While Rhyd Wildermuth, the Managing Editor (hi!) was on pilgrimage in Europe, three Gods&Radicals writers kept the site afloat. Rhyd would like to thank Linda Boeckhout, Fjothr Lokakvan, and James Lindenschmidt for their incredible work. You folks are awesome!
While the United States has only 4.4% of the world’s population, it has 22% of the world’s prisoners. And many of them are about to go on strike:
On September 9, a series of coordinated work stoppages and hunger strikes will take place at prisons across the country. Organized by a coalition of prisoner rights, labor, and racial justice groups, the strikes will include prisoners from at least 20 states—making this the largest effort to organize incarcerated people in US history.
And also in the United States, Sioux and other First Nations groups are fighting to keep an oil pipeline being built across their lands:
Tribes from North Dakota and South Dakota are adamantly opposed to oil companies coming near tribal lands in fear of pipelines bursting and then contaminated water supplies, tribal lands and especially sacred sites on tribal lands.
Feminist and Marxist writer Silvia Federici was featured in an interview in one of our favorite new magazines, ROAR:
The reason women have been targeted by these institutions is that, in the face of the crisis, they have taken matters into their own hands. They have gone into the streets and have created a whole alternative economy that has its roots in subsistence farming—it is the micro-trade, the small snacks and drinks that they prepare and sell for very little money to neighbors and other workers. This is an economy that international organizations and governments try to destroy or manipulate, through the aggressive promotion of micro-credit for instance, because it gives women and people in general more independence from the market.
Last weekend saw the second year of Many Gods West, a polytheist conference co-founded by Rhyd Wildermuth and co-organized this year by Gods&Radicals board member Syren Nagakyrie. She wrote about her experience (and presentation) here.
Like eating human flesh and worshiping power-hungry gods? Some Greek cultists probably did too.
And while some people are celebrating victories for equality in the Olympic games, all those gold medals and victories for equality are made possible in Rio de Janeiro by tear gas.
The feet should set perpendicular to the ground, the knees almost together. It would be uncivil to stretch out the legs, or place one foot on top of the other. If you are in special company, do not cross your legs. Among friends of the same level, it is normal to do so.
from “A Catholic Manual of Civility,” a primer used to educate Brazilian boys (many of them indigenous) how to act like Christians. [emphasis mine]
Picture with me a man I’ve seen quite often. He’s large and sits on a bus, taking up several seats. He’s got his legs spread out, one completely into the aisle. Also, to one side of him are several bags and a backpack. He’s taking up a lot of room and doesn’t seem to notice or care that others could be sitting in those spots. Worse, he’s clipping his fingernails, and he’s listening to loud music.
This man is engaged in manspreading. You’re maybe aware of the concept—it’s in the Oxford Dictionary now:
The practice whereby a man, especially one traveling on public transportation, adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat or seats.
And the problem of ‘manspreading’ was significant enough to lead the MTA in New York to being levying fines to men for spreading their legs, as well as posting signs stating, “Dude…Stop The Spread, Please.”
If you ride public transit, you’re probably recalling all the times you’ve sat next to some ass who’s taken up too much space, or found yourself standing because there’s no room. And maybe you agree with certain Tumblr blogs and internet memes that his callous disregard of others is an obvious display of The Patriarchy, because women either can’t, don’t, or wouldn’t do such things.
Before we go on, though, I should tell you two things. The man I mentioned? He’s Black and homeless. The bags he carries contain all of his human possessions. And he smells a bit different from the rest of the folks on the bus, ‘unpleasant’ to most people. And he mutters to himself. And he grooms himself, all things which are considered rude to do in public spaces. And we’ll talk more about him later.
The second thing I should tell you? I ‘manspread’ too.
Why? It’s not, as some ridiculous Men’s Rights Advocates have suggested–and popular anti-manspreading Tumblr accounts have asserted–that I’m attempting to give more space to my genitals. Any man with testicles so large (and fragile) that sitting upright would crush them probably shouldn’t be sitting at all. Nor is it because I think I deserve more space than others in cramped quarters.
There are actually two reasons I ‘manspread.’ The first reason may elicit a bit of sympathy from you and make you hate me a little less, and the second reason may give you a crucial key to understanding how Capitalism shapes all of our existences, creates social conflict, feeds racism, establishes the patriarchy, and ensures we fight each other rather than the rich.
Bear with me, yeah? And I’ll try to give you a little more room here.
Work is Anti-Yoga
Mechanisation–the turning of the body, male and female, into a machine–has been one of capitalism’s most relentless pursuits.
Silvia Federici–In Praise of the Dancing Body
I was a chef for several years, working in quite a few restaurants in Seattle. Restaurants are Capitalist enterprises, and they’re one of the best ways to see how the imperative for profit is always at war against the lives, desires, and bodies of workers.
At one of them, I fucked up my knee in the walk-in refrigerator. It was a very busy Friday night, and one of our servers asked me to move a keg for her. It wasn’t ‘my job,’ but she was small-framed and didn’t have the strength to move it, so I moved it for her. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed that someone had spilled some water on the floor, and I slipped, contorting my leg so badly in the fall that my ACL (one of the ligaments which keeps the knee attached to the leg) snapped.
That hurt, by the way. A lot. And my bosses tried to fight my worker’s compensation claim, which anyway wouldn’t have paid for the $18,000 surgery I needed to replace the ligament. Fortunately, my partner at the time had just gotten a full-ride scholarship to grad school in Canada and I was able to come with him and get it fixed for free.
That surgery didn’t fix the other problems that came along with the injury. I walk with a swagger now, my right foot is always askew from my left foot. The inclination of my body, when sitting in any sort of chair (except a straight-backed, wooden chair) is to slump forward to reduce the pressure on my lower back with my legs splayed. That is, I ‘manspread,’ but not because I’m a jerk: I’m actually trying not to experience significant pain.
I still try to compress myself as much as possible in tight situations, aware the experience of being in crowded spaces is uncomfortable for everyone. There’s a calculus involved; is my pain likely greater or less than the discomfort someone sitting next to me might feel?
Most people can’t claim this injury as an excuse, though. But plenty of people (mostly men) still do this, apparently clueless (or worse, unconcerned) about the experiences of others around them. Are there so many assholes in the world?
Maybe. But the language and ethics we use to understand and judge ‘manspreading’ or other ‘anti-social behaviors’ is pretty insufficient. For instance, it certainly can’t be said that having ones knees spread open is “The Patriarchy” in action when we consider documents like the Catholic Manual of Civility (quoted at the beginning of this essay) or other Christian primers which were used to do ‘educate’ poor and indigenous peoples into acting ‘Civilized.’ After all, the Catholic Church is pretty much synonymous with Patriarchy.
So, what’s going on with manspreading and our generally angry reactions to it? Let’s go back to the kitchen where I hurt my knee, and I’ll tell you another reason why I think most men ‘manspread,’
That kitchen was poorly designed, like almost every restaurant in which I’ve ever worked. When building a restaurant, an owner is faced with a calculus the customers rarely see. Space is always a premium, especially in an urban setting, and because an owner wants to maximize profit, the dining area receives priority when deciding how the space will be set up.
The more tables available in a restaurant, the more customers can eat at once. More customers equals more profit in the mind of a restaurant owner, and under capitalism, profit is the primary imperative. Thus, the more space devoted to customers, the more potential profit.
But the more space devoted to dining, the less space can be devoted to the kitchen and server-stations. Obviously, a restaurant requires a kitchen in order to operate, but more often than not, the kitchen is quite small. I’ve worked in quite a few of excruciatingly small spaces, and applied for two jobs where, at 6 foot 1 inch and 200 pounds, I was told “You’re too big to work in our kitchen.”
Another thing about many of these kitchens—the counters are often a little too short if you’re of above-average height. Counters on ‘the line’ (where most of the preparation was done) are often slightly too short to work without slouching over, something my tall co-workers often complained about but something my shorter co-workers claimed never to notice. Shorter co-workers experienced other problems in these kitchens, though. Many shelves were often placed very high in order to maximize the use of space (sometimes so high that even I had trouble reaching them). One liked to think that the inconveniences, body-aches, posture problems, and other difficulties the taller workers experienced balanced out the same problems experienced by the shorter of us.
Besides, work is anti-yoga, right?
In all these cases, though, we workers needed to contort, squeeze, stretch or bend our bodies to fit the space allotted us. We had no control over the design of the kitchens (and definitely not the size), but ultimately faced the choice: transform our bodies to fit the work, or hope to find a place our bodies fit better.
Cramped, Crowded, and Capitalist
My experience in kitchens initiated me into an understanding of the conflict between space and profit-imperative. And my experience with my knee injury led me to understand a bit more about the design of public spaces, particularly in transportation.
In Capitalist societies, public transit operates under the same profit-imperative that affects work-spaces, even if there’s no money being made. Costs must be kept to a minimum, revenue must be maximized, and accommodation of human bodies are often an afterthought (if thought about at all). Calculations are made to ensure the least amount of buses or trains are run on routes to move the most amount of people, keeping labor cost (bus-drivers, mechanics, etc.) down, and human difference is an unfortunate problem to be overcome, not a primary logic.
The seats in public transit are standardized–that is, the same seat is available to a person who is 6’5″ as someone 4’10”. In a situation where all seats were built large enough to accommodate a very tall person, everyone would be likely quite comfortable (particularly those for whom such seats would mean a lot of extra room). But, of course, this is not the case. Designing such spaces for very tall people would reduce the amount of available space, increasing the overall cost while decreasing the potential profit (excess revenue) from transit riders.
If you are tall and find yourself sitting in a seat too short for you, your knees either hit the seat in front of you or are a little higher than your waist. The first problem is quite painful after just a minute or two (try pressing your kneecap against a wall for a couple of minutes and describe the feeling), while the second situation puts quite a bit of pressure on your lower back and spine (try this by sitting in a chair, putting a few books under your feet so your knees are slightly higher than your waist, and feel where it starts to hurt).
In both cases, widening the distance between your knees relieves the pain. That is, splaying your legs (‘manspreading’) is one way the body tries to fit in a space not designed to fit it. In fact, this position could be said to be the body attempting to act like a body, rather than a machine.
But let’s consider what else the Capitalist logic of standardization of space and disregard for human difference does. The situation for those in wheelchairs is awful. On most buses in the cities where I’ve lived, there’s often only 2 spots available for them. These spots are also the same spaces allotted to the elderly, blind, or otherwise impaired. On top of this, women with children in strollers, homeless folk with hand-carts, or travelers with luggage must compete for these same spots, and a hierarchy arises to determine who is most “deserving” of the space.
I’ve watched a tragic number of fights between harried single mothers with children and elderly folks over that last remaining seat, and unsuprisingly, they are often of different skin colour. Worse, support and intervention from other passengers tends to fall along racial and class lines, too, a pitched social battle to determine which vulnerable person should be favored over another.
The scarcity of space and disregard for human difference generates strife and conflict, as is the potential for all scarcity. But let’s look at another aspect of this scarcity of space to find the answer to a question very few ever seem to ask.
There’s Only One Thing Between Us
I recently returned from a week visiting my sisters, and had the delightful pleasure of sitting in between two financial managers who were taller–and wider–than I was on a flight with an ultra-low-cost airline.
You can perhaps imagine the experience. Middle-seats are already uncomfortable, whether you’re tall or not. Add to this my posture issues from the aforementioned knee problems and the fact that all three of us were too large for the seats in which we sat. Figure in to this the fact that airlines have increasingly reduced the distance between rows of seat, and you’ve got an unpleasant experience altogether.
Airplanes, particularly, seem to generate their own realms of conflict. On a flight to Ireland from Orlando a year ago, I watched a woman hit an older man repeatedly with her carry-on luggage and shout at him when he asked her to be more careful. It looked almost like it’d come to fists, the woman becoming increasingly belligerent and threatening, her antagonism increasing the more the old man insisted she stop hitting him. And others were starting to take sides, and it was awful.
Of course, we were all cramped. We had all passed through intrusive security measures in an airport which treats humans less like people and more like cattle being led to market. We all had an impending 8-hour flight in an enclosed steel tube. The seats were small, the overhead compartments hardly designed to ensure it was easy to put things in and take things out. Though the woman was being quite awful to the old man, I couldn’t deny she was reacting to the stress of the space and the utter lack-of-control any human must endure when traveling by air.
Put a bunch of people in a tiny cage for 8 hours and they’re likely to act out, yes? But since we’re talking about standardized space and the Capitalist profit-motive, it’s particularly worth looking at the cold war that occurs in every seat over the arm rest. If you’re in the middle, you’ve got it worst—the person on your left and your right are likely to dominate the armrest to either side of you, and you are faced with the choice—force your way to a little more comfort, or stew for the duration about the assholes on either side of you?
But wait—there’s an obvious problem here we take for granted (if we even notice at all):
Why is there only one arm-rest between two seats???
It’s certainly not that chairs come with only one arm rest, nor that it’s impossible for seat-makers to make them large enough that two people could put their arms there.
The reason, again, is Capital. To give each person enough room to move and to rest their arms without struggling against another person would require larger seats, and gaps between them. Doing so would run directly counter to the imperative of the Capitalists who profit from air-travel. In fact, to sit in comfortable seats where you are not compelled to battle in a long war of ‘micro-aggressions’ with the people next to you requires paying an extreme premium to sit in ‘first class.’
Here we can finally see the crux of the problems we face in public places. All those petty conflicts, all those micro-agressions, and all the hierarchies which arise between people in crowded theatres, airplanes, public transit, and elsewhere arise in response to the conditions created by Capital.
The Body Is a Very Rude Thing
Rude: late 13c., “coarse, rough” (of surfaces), from Old French ruide (13c.) or directly from Latin rudis “rough, crude, unlearned.”adj. perhaps related to rudus “rubble.” Sense of “ill-mannered, uncultured; uneducated, uncivilized” is from mid-14c.
Pagan: late 14c., from Late Latin paganus “pagan,” in classical Latin “villager, rustic; civilian, non-combatant” noun use of adjective meaning “of the country, of a village,” from pagus “country people; province, rural district,” by extension, pejorative) Savage, immoral, uncivilized, wild.
The imperative to profit leads an airline to cram as many people into as small a space as possible, just as business owners and other capitalists expect workers to adapt their bodies in order to earn a living. The imperative to keep costs down means seats in public transit and other places are not large enough to accommodate the wide range of human size and mobility difference.
None of this is to excuse wretched behavior in public spaces: there’s rarely any good reason to hit an old man with your valise, nor to prevent others from sitting by splaying your legs and laying out your bags. We still have expectations of public behavior and preferences against people being rude to us, strangers or otherwise.
But what passes for morality and civics (either amongst the codes of social justice or traditionalism) will always meet a dead end if the very conditions which create the conflict are ignored, dismissed, or denied. Worse, many of these concepts of morality and civics aren’t even our own, anyway, but have been shaped by the constant need of the rich to have better-behaved and better self-disciplined workers.
The Birth of Bourgeois Morality & The War on The Rustic
“…the violence of the ruling class was not confined to the repression of transgressors. It also aimed at a radical transformation of the person, intended to eradicate from the proletariat any form of behavior not conducive to the imposition of a stricter work discipline. The dimensions of this attack are apparent in the social legislation that, by the
middle of the 16th century was introduced in England and France…”
Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch
Since the birth of Capitalism, humans have been increasingly compressed together into urban spaces because that is where most work is to be found. We should remember, though, that the people who filled the cities were often displaced people unaccustomed both to city life and particularly to factory life. In fact, it’s taken centuries for those factory owners (capitalists) to train rural, peasant and ‘uncivilized’ peoples to endure the conditions of those factories.
On top of this, the peasants who came to the cities had been otherwise ungoverned. They were literally un-civilized and un-disciplined, and this made them very difficult to rule. The process of turning those people into what we have become now (that is, workers) was long, bloody, and involved altering the conditions of society itself so that the behaviors, patterns, manners–basically, civilization–required of those uncultured, unwrought, undisciplined people became not just part of the requirements of employment, but the actual basis of society.
The class of owners who needed disciplined workers? They’re called the Bourgeoisie (‘those in the city,’). That Class Struggle that Marx wrote about between the workers and the Bourgeoisie wasn’t just pitched-battle, strikes, and police murder, but also a long period of shaping the behaviour of the poor (through laws, education, punishment, and public shaming) until the poor finally internalized that behaviour that would make them good workers.
This is the process Silvia Federici wrote about in Caliban & The Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, and it included the eradication of the belief in magic:
Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action. “Magic kills industry,” lamented Francis Bacon, admitting that nothing repelled him so much as the assumption that one could obtain results with a few idle expedients, rather than with the sweat of one’s brow (Bacon 1870: 381)
Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labor process. How could the new entrepreneurs impose regular work patterns on a proletariat anchored in the belief that there are lucky and unlucky days, that is, days on which one can travel and others on which one should not move from home, days on which to marry and others on which every enterprise should be cautiously avoided?” (p. 142)
…as well as a complete change in the relationship of humans to the body:
It was in the attempt to form a new type of individual that the bourgeoisie engaged in that battle against the body that has become its historic mark. According to Max Weber, the reform of the body is at the core of the bourgeois ethic because capitalism makes acquisition “the ultimate purpose of life,” instead of treating it as a means of the satisfaction of our needs; thus, it requires that we forfeit all spontaneous enjoyment of life (Weber 1958: 53). Capitalism also attempts to overcome our “natural state,” by breaking the barriers of our natural state by lengthening the working day beyond the limits set b y the sun, the seasonal cycles, and the body itself, as is constituted in pre-industrial society.(p.135)
That is, the process of creating the working class involved disciplining, taming, and civilising people, stripping them both of their relationship to magic and particularly their relationship to the natural world and from their bodies, including the enjoyment of the body. Or put another way, Capitalists required workers who had lost their rustic, rude, and rural qualities, which included their Pagan tendencies.
To do this, they got plenty of help from Christian leaders (John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was one of their primary weapons in England) and other moralists who would help inculcate new social codes and norms into the unwashed, uncultured, rude poor. And as the Bourgeoisie continued to gain power, the scourge of rudeness, uncivilized behavior, and ‘immorality’ amongst the poor became an increasing topic of discussion. Primers of all sorts arose, aimed primarily at women and the poor to teach them how to act better, more polite, more like them.
Bourgeois Morality & Social Policing
While the war between the upper classes and the unwashed masses upon whom they relied was always being waged in Europe since the beginning of Capitalism, it got particularly intense in the early 20th century as very rich industrialists needed to find even more disciplined workers for their assembly lines. Henry Ford instituted a ‘morality police’ to monitor the personal lives of his workers, and John D. Rockefeller created an educational foundation to shape and advise government in creating better workers. The stated philosophy for it is revealing:
“In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their minds, and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk.We shall not try to make these people, or any of their children, into philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen — of whom we have an ample supply. The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.”
What’s particularly important in this quote is the tension between parent and child, and the direct attempt to break behavioral patterns passed through tradition. Though many of these efforts took on the shape of benevolence (or paternalism), taken together they show that our actions, our self-discipline, and much of our morality has been shaped by the rich, not by our own self-generated ideas of what makes one a ‘moral’ person.
Again, what we should also give attention to here is that this is the same logic that comprised the ‘white man’s burden’ or the mission civilatrice of European missionaries, entrepreneurs, and civil servants in colonies on the African, Asian, and South American continents. The rhetoric used by wealthy industrialists towards ‘white’ poor people echoes exactly the rhetoric of paternalistic education of the ‘uncivilized’ peoples an earlier generation of Bourgeois needed to shape and mould through education and punishment.
We have inherited a system of morality that is not our own, but rather those of our rulers. We’ve been shaped and moulded into a class of people who have internalized the morality of the Bourgeoisie and made it our own, while being alienated from our own bodies, the cycles of nature, and older beliefs in magic. This is, at least partially, the unacknowledged and rotten root of much of our tendencies to belittle and even hate those with disabilities (they are not ‘good workers’), the very poor (they are rude, unhygenic, lazy–all anti-bourgeois traits), the messy (consider the popularity of voyeuristic shows about ‘hoarders’ in US television), and all manner of other ‘anti-social’ behaviours.
Moralism has quite the history of creating social conflict. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out in The Burden of Our Times, many moral codes and associated ideologies are rarely adopted by the powerful unless they are useful for governing. Race-theory (a relatively new ideology–there was no real notion of racial difference before the Enlightenment, and certainly not one inhabiting the general opinions of commoners) became useful as a governing ideology only when the rich needed to keep slaves and former slaves from uniting with European-immigrant workers against their bosses. Anti-Semitism is another such (im)moral code: rulers and the rich in Europe whipped up anti-Jewish sentiment amongst the poor and workers in the 1800’s most often when they found themselves unable to pay the substantial amounts of money they’d borrowed from Jewish lenders to fund their own wars and colonial exploits.
In all these cases, it’s quite difficult for us to see what is actually shaping our own morality, standards, and ideologies. This is hardly any excuse for being awful to people, of course, only a reminder that our ethical systems are too often inhabited by an almost invisible, almost Archonic, spirit of morality.
Let’s return to the question of the so-called manspreader now. The person taking up too much space on a bus is not playing along with the rules of the space, but what are those rules, and who sets them?
We experience those spaces as ‘community’ spaces, but they aren’t actually created by us, nor do we actually have control over them. This is more obvious in an airplane where it’s easier to see that the passengers are not a community, but only temporarily stuck in the same space together. Public transit seems more like a communal space, but who actually controls them? Not the people who ride them or use them, except in very, very indirect ways like voting. And voting, anyway, only gives the illusion of influence, not actual say in any matter.
Someone who takes up several seats in a public bus when there are others who could sit there is being certainly awful. But what they are doing is not much different from many of the other anti-social behaviours which have been criticized in the past by the rich. Rustic, rude, uncivilized, ‘low-class’ qualities: being loud, eating in public, grooming, having ‘unruly’ children, breastfeeding in public–all of these are the sorts of activities the poor and ‘undisciplined’ traditionally engage in, activities they have not been disciplined, educated, and socialised against.
That last aspect is most relevant to the question of ‘manspreading’ and other misplaced ‘social-justice’ crusades, because socialisation against unacceptable behaviors is most effective when it’s performed by people within the same economic class as the offender. If the rich were to be going about telling women or men how to act in public spaces, disobedience of these standards would approach open revolt. But fortunately for then, we police each other, particularly through public shaming.
Since manspreading has been taken up as part of a Bourgeois Feminist critique and prescribed a heavy-dose of public shaming, we should recall two previous social menaces which attempted to bring men in line with proper social behavior: Prohibition, and the public shaming of war-resisters by women–including Suffragists–during World War I with white feathers.
The Order of the White Feather, supported by prominent early feminists and suffragists, which publicly shamed men for not volunteering to fight in World War I
Lest anyone misunderstand my point (and missed my heavy reliance on Federici here), let me be clear: the metrics and narratives of Feminism are crucial to any revolutionary understanding of our social conditions. Patriarchal forms persist and are the dominant ruling ideology within Capitalism, and none of this should be used an excuse to undermine truly radical Feminism.
But we should be particularly wary of the tendency to adopt Bourgeois Morality within our attempts to right the systemic wrongs caused by Capitalism, particularly when we find ourselves suddenly taking positions on questions that further oppress people whose very bodies stand as resistance to Bourgeois demands. Thus, Feminist leaders (for instance) who find themselves employing violent anti-trans rhetoric as part of their hopes to eradicate the Patriarchy are only helping Capitalism: the transperson, if anything, embodies a physical resistance to the Bourgeois need to divide the working classes into easily-managed categories.
Moreso, we must remember that a great many of the complaints about anti-social or ‘rude’ behaviours are directed toward the poor, homeless, people-of-colour, immigrants, and others who are traditionally the enemies of Capital and the Bourgeoisie, and precisely whom any revolutionary project must not only include, but be led by. Anything which polices their behaviour and re-inforces ‘respectability,’ work-discipline, and Bourgeois moral standards must be rejected.
The Revolt of the Rude
None of this is to say that there is no place for morality or standards of social behavior. Nor is this to assert Patriarchal attitudes do not persist in the behavior of men in public spaces. On the contrary, I’d argue that we actually cannot attack the Patriarchy, nor create community standards, without first attacking the problem of Bourgeois Morality and the illusory society it creates.
When someone’s actions prevent us from using or enjoying a space, we feel wronged. This is an essential feeling, and one we need to cultivate. In fact, it’s precisely the feeling which fueled widespread resistance to Capitalism, Enclosure, and the creation of private property (land).
Before Capitalism, land was shared by a community who could use it as they saw fit, but custom, tradition, and social pressures kept them from over-using it. Overhunting or overharvesting in a forest, over-grazing or over-fishing in fields and streams meant the entire community suffered. The logic of The Commons was one of shared resources and shared obligations, and those who tried to ‘squat’ or ‘enclose’ shared spaces for themselves would be ostracized by the community.
But that older, rustic morality has been replaced by Bourgeois Morality in which we castigate the woman with too many shopping bags or the man with splayed legs on a subway while ignoring or even rewarding and praising the developer who turns open fields or run-down buildings into condos.
A person with their legs splayed, or their shopping bags filling the seats next to them, or the person apparently callous and indifferent to the needs of others in public spaces is violating the same sorts of societal standards which once held together The Commons, except for one difference: these are not The Commons. Our sense of fairness, of charitable social interactions, and our expectation that others around us will not ‘take too much’ linger, but the social spaces where such morals matter actually don’t exist.
An airplane, a restaurant, a park, and even public transit in a Capitalist society are nothing like The Commons, because there is no real or direct community control over the size, shape, design, or use of those spaces. Instead, we have become like caged and severely disciplined animals punishing each other for taking up too much space in an increasingly Enclosed world, believing the illusion of our jailers, parroting their moral codes, mistaking proximity to community.
We should consider the man I mentioned at the beginning of this essay again. The Black homeless man on the bus, with his legs spread apart and his bags on the seat next to him, unshowered, cleaning his nails, talking loudly to himself and listening to a radio without headphones: is his behavior on account of poor upbringing (the conservative answer), male privilege (the pseudo-feminist answer), systemic injustice (the ‘Social Justice’ answer), his Blackness (the racist answer), or his homelessness (the Liberal and Capitalist answer)?
Or do we rush to judgment specifically because he reflects back to us our own imprisonment in the Capitalist work-ethic and Bourgeois Moralism? What if it’s only our own submission to the centuries-long moralistic training of the Capitalist classes that makes us think we have the right to police his behaviour in the first place, or even that there’s anything wrong at all with what he’s doing in a public space?
And what if he is actually showing us the gate to our own liberation?
I should here admit: it is hardly an easy journey through that gate. My own reactions to this man I mentioned embarrass me to no end, but I’ll admit them, because you’ve probably felt some version of them, too. I’d often encounter him on days I really didn’t want to go to work. He’d slow the bus down, take a long time to get on and an even longer time to disembark. He had a broken, swollen foot which extended far into the aisle, and it was never easy for people to get past him. And he smelled. It was evident he rarely showered, rarely washed his clothes. And despite being a social worker who regularly worked amongst people with poor hygeine, his existence frustrated me.
No. He didn’t just frustrate me, he annoyed me, and I obsessed over him. I’d blame him for making me late. I’d be irritated by his music. The sound of him clipping his nails pissed me off. When it was cold or raining, his body odor really made me angry, because I couldn’t open the windows.
I wasn’t the only one, either. An awful camraderie develops between people sharing a mutual annoyance at ‘anti-social’ behavior. Women and men, all of them white and well-dressed, rolled their eyes and held their nose and made other signs to each other, sharing an imagined solidarity of suffering in the presence of this human. You’ve seen this, I know. You’ve been part of it. We all have.
If anything, though, I almost hated him, because he made me confront the very real conditions of my own life. He and I are both subjects of Capitalism, but I’m luckier. I had a job, had a home, could go to a bar or buy a latte as my reward for being a good worker, for doing what I’m supposed to do. He had no home or job, no place to shower, no place to store his stuff, no private place to clip his nails or listen to music without anyone judging it.
He was me, or me if I didn’t obey.
More than that, though, he didn’t have to worry about all the internalized fear about his public presence. He didn’t bother compressing his body into a tiny space, he gave no regard to how much stuff he was carrying in public. He was free to enjoy music in public without giving a shit what other people thought, and he’d laugh off (or sometimes just say ‘fuck you’) to anyone who’d ask him to turn it down. I think I was a little envious of him—not his poverty or homelessness, but his freedom from the regime of Bourgeois respectability and hatred of his body in all its rustic, unwrought, uncivilized, and unapologetic glory.
But more than anything, he reminded me that all the freedoms and luxuries and comforts that I ‘earned’ as a good worker came with the sacrifice of my soul and the internalization of the very logic which causes him to be homeless. And then I’d start thinking about how much I’d rather not be going to work, and how uncomfortable the tiny seat into which I’d crammed myself, with my knees pressed hard against the seat back in front of me, was.
And I’d start thinking about my illusion of control and the false ‘community’ I’d let myself believe I was a part of. I didn’t know anyone on these buses, and they weren’t created with people my size in mind, nor were they really ‘socialist.’ They existed to help ensure workers could get to their jobs, because without them Capitalists would have no one to exploit.
The man before me was the Abyss into which any of us must stare, if we are ever to hope to lose our chains and become free. He (and not I) was the true Pagan, the rustic, rural, rude remainder of Capitalist civilisation, and the price he paid for his freedom was homelessness, poverty, and the hatred of the rest of us on the bus.
Manifesto of the Rude
We can, of course, allow things to remain as they are, instituting increasing rules and public-shaming crusades against people who don’t act civilized. The rewards for doing so are waged out in hours and shiny products, evenings at restaurants and weekends at bars.
We can even convince ourselves that we are doing some good, fighting ‘the patriarchy’ or making a more ‘socially just’ society by policing each other, making sure we act in-line, keep our heads down, and never let our bodies be anything but efficient machines to be tucked-away and put out of sight after use.
Or, we can revolt, re-claiming the rudeness of our bodies, refusing to apologize for the amount of space we take up, our difference in size and shape and ability. But to do so requires a sort of de-colonization and an overthrow of the Bourgeois Morality which has shaped what we believe to be polite, civil, and good.
What would such a morality look like? What would be our demands?
We could start by refusing the easy answers in uncomfortable situations. Instead of demanding that others follow the rules we’ve internalised, we should interrogate those rules and our reactions to the bodies of others. Are they really doing us harm, or are we actually struggling against our own desires for liberation?
We could also start by demanding an end to the Capitalist logic of standardization. If a body doesn’t fit in a space created by Capitalist logic, it’s not the fault of the body. We should stop demanding others squeeze themselves into such spaces, and demand there be more room to be human. This is particularly essential in regards to those with disabilities
Likewise, we should stop pretending that public spaces are anything like The Commons. It is not the person taking up too much space in a bus or train who is the enemy, it is the rich who own the land under our feet. This would be the first step to reclaiming actually-existing Commons, land shared by communities where the poorest amongst us can subsist outside the imperative of Capitalist work.
And finally, we must embrace all that is rude and rustic about others in order to liberate our own bodies. As noted by Federici in her reference to Max Weber, Capitalism requires us to see our bodies as means to gain wealth while forfeiting spontaneous enjoyment. Therefore, leisure, frivolity, and celebration must not only be part of our resistance, but the foundation of our morality. Rather than shame (or worse—report) the person brushing their hair or eating food in a bus, shouldn’t we rather delight in such things? Are they not caring for their body the way the rest of us do? Couples engaged in public displays of affection—is there not something beautiful—and Pagan–about people expressing love? Or the rude person playing loud music on a bus, what if we danced to that music or sang along? Is there anything more Pagan than music in a public space?
If anything, such a revolt of the Rude would also be a revolt of love. Love would cause us to demand more space for ourselves, more enjoyment of our bodies. Love would stand against the logic of the machine and the shaming of the stranger. Love would claim the right to live outside the demands of profit.
Love would make us bodies again, rather than workers.
Love is a very, very rude thing.
Let’s be in love.
Rhyd 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 A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest, and A Kindness of Ravens, and a columnist for The Wild Hunt.
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.
He worships Welsh gods, drinks a lot of tea, and dreams of forests, revolution, and men. His words can be found at Paganarch.com and can be supported on Patreon.com/Paganarch.
It is no great surprise to me that Silvia Federici‘s book Caliban & The Witch has gained so much traction in the Pagan community in recent years. When I first read the book more than a decade ago, I knew it would be important for Pagans, simply because it told our story, our history, from the most complete and insightful historical and theoretical perspective I had ever seen. I am on record as saying it is the most important political book yet written in the 21st century, since it deals with the story of the transition to capitalism, with all the violence, blood, fire, and greed that accompanied and forced the transition. But since I have been a Pagan for nearly 30 years, I tended to see the subject matter less in terms of the transition to capitalism, but rather more in terms of the final transition away from Paganism, in the multitude and myriad of ways various paganisms were expressed before they were crushed and assimilated into the new mechanistic worldview of capitalism.
But Silvia Federici is not a ‘Pagan,’ despite the great service her work has been to our community. The context of her work, however, can be just as valuable to us as Caliban itself has been. Three or four decades before that book was published, a few groups of thinkers, writers, students, and teachers began working together. Two of them were the feminist Wages For Housework movement, as well as the Zerowork Collective. Both are worthy of investigation and further study. But by the end of the 1970s, a new group had emerged, which will be the focus of this piece.
A Brief History
History tells us that the Midnight Notes Collective began in the late 1970s with discussions between Monty Neill, Hans Widmer (aka p.m.), and George Caffentzis, with John WiIlshire Carrerra and Peter Linebaugh getting involved early on. Indeed, the membership of the Collective has been quite fluid over the years, both because people naturally tend to come and go over the years, and also because there were years when they intentionally remained anonymous to avoid overt harassment and repression form the establishment, an important strategy of self-preservation for a group demonstrating a “commitment to revolutionary possibilities.” They also wanted to avoid the “rock star” cult of personality, which was common in academia at the time. In addition to the people directly involved with Midnight Notes (including the above as well as Silvia Federici, Dan Coughlin, David Riker, Vasilis Passas, Johnny Machete, and Michaela Brennan, among others ), there were also various friends & associates over the years, including Steven Colatrella, John Roosa, Harry Cleaver, and Massimo de Angelis.
Despite the fluidity of the group, there was an important coherence to their ideas, expressed in a variety of publications over the years, starting in 1979 and running through the Reagan Years into the Bush era, all of which are now available online:
These earliest publications from Midnight Notes are worth checking out, as a great glimpse into the political climate of the Reagan/Bush years, as the transition of capitalism from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism was cemented.
After these original issues, there were several more publications, some of them book-length, from the group:
Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992(1992, Autonomedia)
This anthology is an analysis of the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, which they framed as a “work/energy crisis,” as well as a look at the evolution of capitalism in the 1980s. It contains several of their previous writings from earlier publications, namely The New Enclosures and The Work/Energy Crisis And The Apocalypse, with other articles written to fill in some of the theoretical gaps, additional analysis, and history. This book might be the best overall introduction to the thought of Midnight Notes in general. While in some ways it is dated from the 2015 point of view, it is my personal favorite analysis of the transition from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism, and broadened my understanding of today’s capitalism.
Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local & Global Struggles of the Fourth World War(2001, Autonomedia)
This book is an anthology of writing, using the Zapatista uprising in Mexico as the focal point for anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal, and anti-globalization theory and history. Midnight Notes saw that this uprising was “a luminous crack in a clouded sky,” the first “movement that consciously pitted itself against global capital and at the same time was rooted in a territorial reality.”
Promissory Notes: From Crisis To Commons (2009)
This much shorter piece, published in 2009, is an analysis of the 2007-2008 “Great Recession” or global financial crisis. It also showed that the crisis was largely yet another “apocalypse” or evolution of capital from the neoliberalism from the 1970s through the early 2000s, and represented neoliberal “capital’s flight into financialization,” or the “attempt to ‘make money from money’ at the most abstract level of the system once making money from production no longer sufficed.”
After barraging you with so many links to their writings over the years, I will now attempt to distill their writing into a few of what I perceive to be their key ideas over nearly 40 years of writing.
3 Key Ideas
I remember when my own political outlook begin to evolve away from mainstream partisan politics in the US and toward a more radical outlook, I felt a dearth of information. Most of this was getting used to where information comes from: learning how to disengage from the received dialogues and worldview propagated by the capitalist media and the prevailing cultural outlook I grew up with in suburbia, and toward more obscure, alternative sources was a challenge. To this day, I think that truth discernment is arguably the biggest challenge facing alternative thinkers in the information age. In some ways it’s even more challenging these days, since you can encounter just about every possible viewpoint articulated somewhere on the Internet.
In the late 90s, I was lucky enough to begin studying philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, where George Caffentzis was a teacher. It was a small department, so if you hung out at the philosophy house it was easy to get to know some of the folks who taught there. I was intrigued by George’s ideas and thoughts right from the beginning. There are a lot of great teachers there, but I knew right away that I had a lot to learn from George. I remember early in my freshman year, he did a senior seminar on the philosophy of money, and being really bummed that I was nowhere near far enough along in my philosophy study to be able to take it. So I began to poke around for some of George’s writings, and before long I discovered Midnight Notes. This was in the early days of the Internet, before the writings were available online. I began to read them, and they were definitely challenging. I hadn’t yet read Marx or really any other radical political writings, and in retrospect Midnight Notes served as not only a fabulous introduction, but also an enduring foundation for my radical political thinking. I am grateful for this bit of serendipity that brought me to Maine at this point in spacetime.
Having studied Midnight Notes over the past 15 years, I think these are the most important ideas to glean from their writings:
1. Capitalist Crisis/Apocalypse Is Always About Class Struggle
This idea was first articulated in their 3rd issue: The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse, written in 1980 after the so-called “energy crisis” of the 1970s had been underway for the better part of a decade, peaking in both 1973 and 1979. I was a child in the 1970s, and I remember seeing the long lines for gasoline, complaints about OPEC and Jimmy Carter, but very little about class struggle. Interestingly, this was also the last decade where labor strikes were common, since strikes were more or less wiped out by the Reagan administration starting in 1981 when he fired the air traffic controllers who had unionized under PATCO and voted to strike. Their argument is quite detailed, but the essence of it is that
Capitalist crises stem from a refusal of work…. The term “energy crisis” is a misnomer. Energy is conserved and quantitatively immense, there can be no lack of it. The true cause of capital’s crisis in the last decade is work, or more precisely, the struggle against it. The proper name for the crisis then is the “work crisis” or, better, the “work/energy crisis.” For the problem capital faces is not the quantity of work per se, but the ratio of that work to the energy (or labor power) that creates it…. Through the noise of the apocalypse, we must see in the oil caverns, in the wisps of natural gas curling in subterranean abysses, something more familiar: the class struggle (Midnight Notes, The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse).
2. The New Enclosures
Arguably the most important insight that came from Midnight Notes’ writings is the notion of the New Enclosures. Before this insight, enclosure, or “primitive accumulation” in Marxist terminology, was largely seen as a historical artifact from the beginning of capitalist society. Midnight Notes showed that enclosures
“are not a one time process exhausted at the dawn of capitalism. They are a regular return on the path of accumulation and a structural component of class struggle. Any leap in proletarian power demands a dynamic capitalist response: both the expanded appropriation of new resources and new labor power and the extension of capitalist relations, or else capitalism is threatened with extinction.” (Midnight Oil, 318)
Midnight Notes then argued that the New Enclosures took five forms:
Ending communal control of the means of subsistence
Seizing land for debt
Make mobile & migrant labor the dominant form of labor
The collapse of socialism
Attack on our reproduction
They — both the collective itself, and several of the writers working outside the collective — have continued to develop these ideas of enclosure since then.
3. Commons & Commoning
The last idea I think is the most important to come from Midnight Notes is reclaiming the notion of the Commons and Commoning. This idea is the logical extension of their insights about Enclosure, since the Commons is the very thing that is being enclosed. These insights came later in the Midnight Notes, particularly through their admiration and analysis of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico beginning on January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA went into effect. Midnight Notes argues that these struggles represent
on one side, capital’s attempt to form a new level of global superstate and economy and, on the other, an anti-capitalist struggle moving from a multiplicity of localities to large-scale confrontations like the “Battle of Seattle” in late 1999. The Zapatistas have aptly named this struggle “the Fourth World War.”
Commoning is at the center of this struggle, since the commons provides subsistence for resistance, and “this power to subsist/resist is exactly what capital wants to eliminate throughout the world.” In general, and to some degree, capital is always enclosing, whereas the working class is always commoning, and commoning is central to resistance against capital.
After this all-too-brief look at the Midnight Notes Collective itself, I now want to turn to 3 new books, published by PM Press, from three of the most important voices within Midnight Notes. While George Caffentzis and Peter Linebaugh have been involved with Midnight Notes from its earliest days, it is important to note that Silvia Federici has remained a bit more aloof from the collective over the years. While she was part of the collective for a few of the later original Midnight Notes publications (namely The New Enclosures), and her writings appear in Midnight Oil and Auroras of the Zapatistas, she is not listed as a member of the collective in either of those books. While I do not pretend to be privy to the undercurrents of interpersonal dynamics and ideological differences within the group, I suspect that Silvia’s unwavering commitment to feminism is at the root of the aloofness. And I should also point out that George Caffentzis conveyed to me in a conversation that for the most part it was Midnight Notes responding to Federici’s work rather than vice versa. All three of these books are anthologies of writing from the careers of each writer, to which I now turn.
In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis Of Capitalism
Of the three, George Caffentzis is the most traditional, albeit radical, “philosopher of the anticapitalist movement.” In Letters Of Blood & Fire is divided into three sections. Part 1 is Work/Refusal, Part 2 is Machines, and Part 3 is Money, War, & Crisis. Part 1 begins with the aforementioned “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse,” which remains foundational to much of Caffentzis’ subsequent work. These analyses contain wonderful insights, such as this analysis of the relationship between capital’s production, value, and prices:
The hand of capital is different than its mouth and its asshole. The transformation of value into prices is real, but it also causes illusions in the brains of both capitalists and workers (including you and me!). It all revolves around “mineness,” the deepest pettiness in the Maya of the system: capital appears as little machines, packets of materials, little incidents of work, all connected to us — its little agents of complaint, excuse, and hassle. Each individual capitalist complains about “my” money, each individual worker cries about “my” job, each union official complains about “my” industry; tears flow everywhere, apparently about different things, so that capitalism’s house is an eternal soap opera. “Mineness” is an essential illusion, though illusion all the same. Capital is social, as is work, and it is also as pitiless as Shiva to the complainers, whose blindness capital needs to feed itself. It no more rewards capitalists to the extent that they exploit than it rewards workers to the extent that they are exploited. There is no justice for anyone but itself.
Part 2, on Machines, is a more technical analysis of the place of machines within capitalism, and particularly within the Marxist analysis of capital. Central to his arguments is the piece from 1997, “Why Machines Cannot Create Value: Marx’s Theory of Machines,” whose argument is self-contained in the title.
Part 3 contains a very short and succinct piece, which I recommend as the briefest and most coherent introduction to Caffentzis’ work overall. “The Power of Money: Debt & Enclosure” is a very brief look at money in the human experience:
For most of human history, money either did not exist (before roughly the seventh century BC) or it was of marginal importance for most people on the planet (until roughly the nineteenth century AD). Why is it so important now?
He then articulates the “economist’s fairy tale,” which is the received story about the function of money simplifying exchange as compared to barter, as well as “lowering costs” of trade. He points out that money, too, has its transaction costs that mostly go overlooked by capitalist economists.
All in all, these writings convey Marx’s image that the story of the origins of capitalism, and its reproduction, are written “in the letters of blood and fire used to drive workers form the common lands, forests, and waters in the sixteenth century.” I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the most technical analysis of capitalism, from a detailed philosophical perspective.
Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, & Feminist Struggle
As previously stated, Silvia Federici is the feminist of these three thinkers. Revolution at Point Zero, an anthology of her work over the past 40 years, all of which explore the “zero point of revolution” which is where “new social relations first burst forth, from which countless waves ripple outward into other domains.” It, too, is divided into three parts. Part 1 is Theorizing and Politicizing Housework, containing her earlier, foundational work such as “Wages Against Housework” from 1975, as well as “Why Sexuality Is Work” and “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet.” Part 2 is Globalization and Social Reproduction, and contains 4 essays including “Women, Globalization, and the International Women’s Movement.”
Part 3, Reproducing Commons, has her most recent work including “Feminism and the Politics of the Common in an Era of Primitive Accumulation” from 2010, which contains the powerful argument that there is an “oblivion” in “our blindness to the blood in the food we eat, the petroleum we use, the clothes we wear, the computers with which we communicate.” For Federici,
Overcoming this oblivion is where a feminist perspective teaches us to start in our reconstruction of the commons. No common is possible unless we refuse to base our life, our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed if “commoning” has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject. This is how we must understand the slogan “no commons without community…. community as a quality of relations, a principle of cooperation and responsibility: to each other, the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals.
Federici’s writings here concentrate on “social reproduction,” which is the ways in which society and the people in it reproduce themselves. It is the food we eat, the social relations we share outside the work environment, our basic needs down to clean water & air, shelter and clothing. All of these things are “the most labor-intensive work on earth, and to a large extent it is work that is irreducible to mechanization.” It is also work that is largely unwaged, and exists in the context of capitalist enclosure. I highly recommend this book for those interested in not only a feminist perspective, but also in very practical, day-to-day ideas about how we can be commoning and resist capital.
Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, & Resistance
Finally, Peter Linebaugh is the historian and storyteller of the three. He is an engaging writer, and the stories he tells need to be heard and retold. Stop, Thief! is divided into five sections. Section 1, The Commons, is the best primer I know of to exploring what Commons & Commoning is. Start with “Some Principles of the Commons,” which is a very short introduction, showing us that the commons “is best understood as a verb,” and then “Stop, Thief! A Primer on the Commons & Commoning” fills in one’s understanding that the commons “is not a thing but a relationship” as it applies to various modes of living & knowing.
Part 2, “Charles Marks,” are some of Linebaugh’s contributions to Marxism in history. Part 3, The “UK”, are looks at English History including “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab,” which shows us that the Luddites were not technophobes but rather were cross-dressing warriors, “anonymous, avenging avatars who meted out justice that was otherwise denied.” Part 4, The “USA,” contains “Introduction to Thomas Paine” and “Meandering at the Crossroads of Communism and the Commons,” which take a look at the vast commons that existed in pre-colonialist North America. This analysis is continued in Part 5, “First Nations,” with its three essays, “The Red-Crested Bird and Black Duck”, “The Commons, the Castle, the Witch, and the Lynx,” and “The Invisibility of the Commons.”
Of the three, Linebaugh’s writing might be the most readable. I agree with Robin Kelley, who wrote about an earlier book from Linebaugh that there is “not a more important historian living today. Period.” I highly recommend this book for people who want to broaden their understanding of the Commons and Commoning, through the voice of a master storyteller, an engaging and agile writer.
The Witching Hour Legacy
These three thinkers, as well as The Midnight Notes Collective and all who have participated in it over the years, represent a vast treasure trove for anyone wishing to broaden their understanding of capitalism, crisis, resistance & class struggle, enclosure, commons/commoning, and revolutionary possibilities in the 21st century. These writers and ideas were foundational to my own development as a radical thinker and writer, and I remain grateful for their work.
We Pagans are a conquered people. Our people have been systematically tortured, murdered, domesticated, and exploited. Our tribes have been displaced and scattered; we now live in tiny, redundant, inefficient and resource-hungry enclosure-cages creating an illusion of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism, while plugged in to the matrix with its feeding-tubes and thought-machine programs. Our traditions of dwelling with nature have been mutated, assimilated into the dominant culture of exploitation and resource extraction. Our gods have been relegated from vibrant, living beings and companions in relationship with us to mere characters in old, forgotten stories. Our magic and wonder have been dismissed as superstition, while the hegemony of the laboratory masquerades as wisdom, replacing Truth with mere facts. Our sacred connections to the land and its ecosystems have been severed, made so abstract that only a tiny handful of us could survive away from the infrastructures of civilization for more than a few days, or only a few hours in adverse conditions.
We Pagans are a conquered people. The conquest of Paganism is so complete, so fundamental, that it’s obscured from our view: many of us couldn’t even identify our conquerors. Today, while we sort our recycling bins, putting the refuse-relics of our consumerism into the proper containers for “disposal,” our culture argues about whether or not Climate Change is real, whether planetary rates of extinction are happening 10,000 times faster or only 1,000 times faster than the natural extinction rate. We get online, sipping our lattes, and we argue about whether a vegan diet or a paleo diet is healthier for people or the planet.
We Pagans are a conquered people. We don’t even know who we are anymore. Getting Pagans together is like herding cats: we joke, we celebrate our diversity, and gossip about our witch wars. There are many types of Neopagans today, and all of us have been conquered. It doesn’t matter what kind of Pagan you are, which specific tradition, subculture, or set of Pagan values you embrace, we Pagans are a conquered people.
What kind of Pagan are you? Not that it matters….
Are you a Druid? The Druids were wiped out by Romans, though there have been attempts to revive the traditions. At best, we are guessing at what the Druids were, and the ways of modern Druids — connecting to the land, being in relationship, guarding the stories of the tribe, and questing Awen — are in opposition to the mainstream culture. We are no longer aware of our direct relationship with the land and its ecosystems. There is only property to be exploited, to be conquered and “improved” for private gain subject only to the laws of free-market mythology. The Awen of direct experience, of intimate relationship and engagement, is being replaced by vicarious, secondary experience. Rather than gather by the thousands to wander in the wilderness, we gather in stadiums to watch other people run on artificial grass, elite athletes clad in kevlar armor. Rather than commune directly with the wild divinity in nature, we gather in megachurches to listen to other people sing & tell us about God, passing around a collection basket. The “tree wit” of Druidry lingers, but we must learn to see it.
Are you a Heathen or an Ásatrúar? In most places you will be seen as a racist, a white supremacist, or simply as deluded. The hagiographers say that Olaf The Saint, one of my ancestors, was responsible for converting Norway over to Christianity. The Gods of the Northern tradition endure, even if we must look deeper than portrayals of Thor as a blonde, hot-tempered hottie who is merely a quaint albeit archaic member of an elite group, aloof from humanity, who fight the evil space-aliens bent on their own agenda of colonization.
Are you a Polytheist? Two thousand years of hegemonic monotheism means that you are not likely to be taken seriously in most places in the Western world when you speak of your gods, and your relationships with them. No longer is the question of many gods up for debate; instead it is which god is real, with the rest being imaginary with frauds or infidels for worshipers. And even this is among those who acknowledge the possibility of divinity at all — for many others, talk of divinity is madness and delusion.
Do you work with magick? Your work will be derided as superstition, under the epistemological monopoly of science. Indeed, a favorite tactic of modern, fundamentalist pseudoskeptics is to reduce an idea or a concept to mere “magical thinking” so that it can be dismissed entirely as folly.
Are you a Goddess-worshiper? You are a threat to patriarchy, by even having the audacity to suggest that the feminine can be on the same plane as the masculine, and that a divine feminine is even possible. There is no room for the Sacred Feminine in Father, Son, & Holy Ghost, in Allah and His Prophet, in YHVH, much less in the “human resources” departments responsible for writing smaller paychecks to its female employees.
Are you an Animist? A Pantheist or Panentheist? Then you live in a place, on a planet, that has been systematically disenchanted, desacralized, and despoiled, a place that almost certainly bears little or no resemblance to what the place looked like a few short centuries ago before Capital got its clutches onto it, extracting all the resources it could for private profit without regard to the intraspecies genocide it left in its wake. Anyone who spends enough time out in nature has heard its call, its lament, crying out to anyone, anyone who will listen, in a language not audible to domesticated ears.
Are you a Reconstructionist? The reason you have to reconstruct your spiritual path is because it was wiped out in the first place. That these old, Pagan ways of being are not glaringly obvious even to a child in our culture is perhaps the biggest indicator that we Pagans are a conquered people. Some ancestral wisdom has been lost forever, wiped out by a mere few hundred years of colonialist hegemony, and its reconstruction will require another few thousand years of indigenous human experience as part of their ecosystems.
Are you a Witch or a Wiccan? Untold thousands of Witches were burned at the stake for over a century, one of the most widespread examples of genocide in human history. This genocide was not limited to one nation-state or one single power-structure, as one of the first historical examples of a unified, global assertion of power. The ways of the Witch are beyond forgotten, they were deliberately and systematically stamped out under direct threat of death and torture, replaced by other mechanistic social orders ripe for exploitation.
The smell of smoke lingers
Even today, the smell of smoke lingers. To those who learn to be attentive, to quieten the mind and pull one’s awareness away from the thousandfold distractions of modern life, the past will whisper its stories into the ears of the present. We must look at our history to discover all the layers of our identity. Who are the Pagans? What stories from the past helped to shape who we are today? I am convinced that our history reveals a very strong characterization of our tribe & our subcultural identity in the 21st Century. We Pagans are a conquered people, and we have largely become so within the past 500 years.
The Pagan ways-of-being were much more intuitive and apparent to people living 500 years ago, before the Scientific Revolution, the birth of Capitalism, and the beginnings of European Colonialism. Modernity itself rose from the ashes of the Pagan ethos as it was systematically and globally incinerated from popular consciousness on thousands of pyres and stakes of the victims of the witch hunts.
Indeed, even today the smell of smoke from The Burning Times lingers. This period in history remains the paradox of our age: at the same moment that the prevailing worldview was turning to those core values that we fetishize — the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the rise of science as the best (indeed the only) epistemology, the rise of capitalism and its notion of property and profit as the fundamental organizing principle of society and the planet’s resources — there occurred some of the most brutal examples of repression and genocide ever witnessed, a brutality that was unprecedented in its scope and scale:
In this “century of geniuses”—Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes—a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the “problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.
—Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch, (New York: Autonomedia, 2004) p. 168.
This past, once we clear the irritation of the acrid smoke from our eyes, will begin to speak. As we learn to listen, we begin to understand that this time is best described as a turn from Pagan values, resulting in the wholesale slaughter of entire populations who embrace these values, the marginalization of Pagans within the new power structures created at this time, and the demonization of these values within our consciousness.
The new power structures used fear both as a means of social control and to engineer this shift in values. They cultivated fear of the witch-hunters and the Inquisition, who could exercise nearly complete power-over in the most horrendous and unspeakable ways, and ultimately fear of that which they claimed to be eradicating: witches, demons, devils, and magic. Pagan ways weren’t quaint practices or ignorant superstitions that faded away because now we know better. They were deliberately and systematically repressed until they were all but stamped out. We must now reconstruct them.
In this culture of fear, our Pagan values were nearly lost. Today, the signs of this loss reveal themselves to souls attentive to the world’s condition. The first hint is a vaporous sense that is hard to put a finger on: something is fundamentally wrong with the world, with the way the world is organized, with the flows of power structures in the world. As we look deeper, they become more apparent.
First, there is always war. From the massive mobilizations and armaments of World War II, to the development, use, and threat of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, to the wars against hidden threats such as communism and terrorism, to the resource wars seeking to control supplies of oil across the globe, to the political and economic dominance of the military industrial complex, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Poverty. War, war, war. No sane person wants it, yet it is all around us, organizing much of society.
Second, there is habitual, widespread, and systematic deceit by those in power. These are most easily spotted in the various antics of the US government, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. From the destruction of the USS Maine in Cuban waters leading up to the Spanish-American war, to the Reichstag Fire preceding Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany, to the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the illegal “detainees” of Guantanamo Bay following the attacks of 9/11, to the Watergate scandal, to the empty rhetoric-posturing in any political “debate” preceding an election, it is clear that those in power do not say what they mean, much less do what they say. Indeed, it is fundamental to the preservation of their power that they don’t. This is not a problem of either side of the US power structure; both Democrats and Republicans systematically operate from this place of deceit, and for both parties the main goal is to preserve, consolidate, and expand their power bases, each serving the larger power structure in slightly different but related ways.
Third, there is an unprecedented stratification of wealth that continues to widen the gap between rich and poor, for individuals, businesses, corporations, and nations. As the saying goes, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. An economy exists to help regulate the use and distribution of wealth, which can only be created through labor and enclosure of natural resources. Awareness of these injustices reached a crescendo in 2011 in the various Occupy movements, and continues today with Strike Debt and countless other movements.
Fourth, humanity’s relationship with food is completely out-of-balance. In some places of the world, people starve, barely eking out adequate sustenance for survival. In other places, food is not a way to sustain life, a gift of nature of which humanity is a part, but rather a mere sensual pleasure, packaged in plastic, with a myriad of choices as to which flavor variety will suit one’s whim that day — indeed thrice daily. As a result, nearly a billion people struggle with getting enough food (to say nothing of adequate nutrition), while nearly 2 billion people are overweight or obese. There are many causes for obesity, and the problem isn’t this simple, but the poor almost never get adequate nutrition whether they are consuming too many calories or too few. In addition, because of the way food is produced on our planet, there is alarmingly little quality topsoil left, and it is deteriorating 10-40x faster than it can be replenished. The aquifers of the earth are running dry, due to both irrigation and the bottled water industries, to say nothing of fracking.
Fifth, healthcare is nearly impossible to navigate for many people in the world. In some parts of the world, there are not enough doctors, healers, educators, and above all, resources; in another part of the world, healthcare has become so profit-driven with costs so inflated that it is inaccessible to millions. The system is bogged down by the allopathic medicine machine — insurance companies driven by profit, actuarial tables, and entire departments of workers whose sole purpose is to find specific ways to deny coverage for its patients; pharmaceutical companies who hoard knowledge of health techniques through patents, who overcharge patients in certain countries so that it is more profitable, who advertise their drugs in mass media, promoting the idea that wellness can only come through chemistry, and reinforce that it is OK to profit from the suffering and misfortune of others. The witches used to be the healers. Every community had them. These healers were attuned to local ecosystems, and knew how to make medicines of all kinds. The community supported them. People didn’t lose their homes and everything they owned when they got sick.
Sixth, and related to the pharmaceutical industry, there is rampant mental dis-ease in the west. Depression, angst, and eating disorders (anorexia & bulemia on one side, emotional binge eating on the other) are everywhere one turns. Usage of psychotropic drugs are at an all-time high, including mandatory prescriptions for “difficult” (which usually means unusual or hard-to-control) children in public schools. This problem of overmedication stems from and reinforces the notion of “compulsory neurotypicality” explored by Sean Donahue, which “decreed only a narrow band of neurological experience and expression permissible, and demonized or pathologized variation from the norm.” Furthermore, these drugs are widely advertised on television, creating a sense of never-having-enough. No longer are commodified neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter modifiers tools to chemically assist people in navigating the emotional and psychological pain they are experiencing, but instead have become “happy pills” for millions of people, sold to exploit our culture’s deepening sense of unease and malaise.
Seventh, the problem of wageslavery is fundamental to western culture. There are a few who derive happiness from their jobs, but the vast majority of people would immediately quit their jobs if earning money was unnecessary. It’s one thing to expect people to contribute to society — including the unpleasant jobs that no one really wants to do — to the best of their ability, but how many jobs are truly essential to a healthy, well-managed society? Does society really need a fast-food restaurant on every corner, providing two-dozen underpaid jobs each, in order for people or the neighborhood, much less the ecosystems it extracts resources from, to thrive? Do marketing executives truly make the world a better place? Are corporate lawyers responsible for maintaining a smoothly-functioning society? In short, no. There are far more work-hours of labor performed each week than are necessary to maintain a healthy society. Our time performing these tasks should leave plenty of leftover time for adequate self-care and wherever our personal liberty takes us. It’s more difficult to enjoy and pursue one’s liberty when you have a work schedule during most of your waking hours. This is the opposite of liberty, or our culture’s promise of the pursuit of happiness, as Marcuse reminded us in 1966:
“I hesitate to use the word — freedom — because it is precisely in the name of freedom that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated. This situation is certainly not new in history: poverty and exploitation were products of economic freedom; time and again, people were liberated all over the globe by their lords and masters, and their new liberty turned out to be submission, not to the rule of law but to the rule of the law of the others. What started as subjection by force soon became “voluntary servitude,” collaboration in reproducing a society which made servitude increasingly rewarding and palatable. The reproduction, bigger and better, of the same ways of life came to mean, ever more clearly and consciously, the closing of those other possible ways of life which could do away with the serfs and the masters, with the productivity of repression.”
—Herbert Marcuse, “Political Preface 1966,” Eros & Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966) xiii-xiv.
Eighth, unprecedented weather patterns rage across the planet. The Earth’s environment — in terms of its ability to support human life — is rapidly deteriorating. The “global warming” debate rages on in yet another dualism, where each side thinks the other is somewhere between mad and stupid. Limiting this discussion to one parameter (temperature, ie, warming) or even a few (broadening it to include “climate change”) does not look at humanity’s relationship with the ecosystem. It is clear that humans are affecting the ecosystems of the world in a profound way; all one has to do is fly over the US and look down to observe the effects industrialized human activity has had. Everything is in muted colors or artificial, mechanical, geometric patterns attached the natural landscapes. Humanity is beginning to see the effects of a few centuries of industrialization, which accelerated the desertification of the planet by way of human domestication for the past 10,000 years or so. These effects have been all-too-easy to deny because they have taken longer than one lifetime to manifest.
How did this happen?
I could go on. Many do; indeed the present (not to mention the future) seems quite bleak.
What happened? Where are the ideals of scientific progress, of Enlightenment notions of “perpetual peace” and “equality and justice for all”? After 500 years of ostensibly chasing these noble goals of the “century of genius” — the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, the dawn of Capitalism, the first experiment with modern republics and “representative democracies,” the Bill of Rights — these ideals have not fulfilled their promise.
The complex web of problems we see today is an extension of this history of Paganism over the past 500 years, a history that can be characterized primarily as a move away from Pagan values. There is a disconnect between these core Pagan values and our daily experiences within our present, 21st century world, a disconnect which produces not only the global crises outlined above, but also a spiritual and psychic conflict and crisis within each observant, thinking Pagan whose life is all-too-rarely in harmony with these values. We Pagans are a conquered people indeed. But even worse, we have been assimilated, which means we directly participate in our own suppression. This is both the horror and the genius of colonialism.
We Pagans are a conquered people. But many questions remain, and indeed will be explored in future columns in these pages. Among them:
What exactly are the Pagan values that have been lost?
If Pagans are a conquered people, then who are the conquerors?
What benefit are Pagans getting from this relationship of conquest? What should we do about it? Should we resist, and if so, what are the most effective modes of resistance?
Will Pagans be courageous enough to decolonize themselves?
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