I learned of Making Light through one of Neil Gaiman’s posts on fanfiction. Teresa Nielsen Hayden had written a lovely post on Mary Sue fanfiction and pro fiction. I started commenting there many years ago, although I was always more of a lurker. I started my own livejournal blog, and became friends with Bellatrys, londonkds, oyceter, and spiralsheep.
I never forgot the conversation Making Light had after the 2004 election on gay marriage, how conciliatory they were to conservative members of that community. A stark contrast to how they handled Racefail after the 2008 election.
I’m not sure if the pandagon archives are still there. I think Alas A Blog still exists. I remember Barry Deutsch’s comic about a Jewish girl who was a dragon-slayer. I remember Matthew Yglesias, although I had a very scratchy knowledge of economics. I remember A Tiny Revolution and Michael Berube. My god, all these white leftists and liberals hi-fiving themselves over how superior they were to the religious right and wondering why there wasn’t a big tent coalition on the internet.
The net roots were obsessed with popular culture. The Buffy debates alone took up yards of screentime. I didn’t have a TV then, although I passively and incoherently absorbed everything I read on the internet. This is why I get infuriated when people accuse the social justice warriors of trivializing social justice concerns, because the netroots had not modeled good behaviour, to put it mildly.
Before Racefail, the biggest netroots dustup I observed was with Amanda Marcotte’s plagiarization of Brownfemipower’s work around WOC reproductive rights. The signs had been there, all along. Amanda Marcotte had defended Paris Hilton as a powerful woman enjoying her money as she choosed while dismissing Beyonce as a non-feminist.She was an obsessive anti-theist and was an apologist for harmful hipster elitism. She made much mileage out of her heartbreaking tale of rape and a pregnancy scare that took place afterwards. Which is one thing to defend reproductive rights and abuse survivors, and another to defend a rapist like Hugo Schwyzer.
I wonder how much the anger of the white netroots against the social justice warriors had to do with the fear of aging.
Racefail happened in January 2009. My entry into Racefail happened by way of a blogger who referred to Deepa D.’s essay, “I didn’t dream of dragons.” This was a magnificent essay taking down everything that was Eurocentric about the western high fantasy tradition. Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s livejournals were on my friendslist, and I gaped in horror as they doubled down on racist denial. Will Shetterly started on his rampage of stalking women of color feminists and their white feminist allies. The Nielsen Haydens and Shetterly probably thought they were doing liberal damage control, but it still looks like liberal racist libel and slander of my friends Spiralsheep and Willow, and the ones that I don’t know about, from where I stand.
What made their behaviour even more unforgivable was the fact that Making Light had built its reputation as a bastion of moderacy and approachment between (white) leftists and liberals and centre-rightists. Dave Luckett had posted opposition to gay marriage after the 2004 elections, and instead of being booted out the Making Light regulars reached out and used reason on him, and succeeded. Yet when Spiralsheep and Willow had made completely reasonable attacks on white Eurocentrism in science fiction and fantasy, suddenly they were being divisive and spouting “identity politics nonsense.” Maybe if they had a couple of fiction manuscripts that could have been published at Tor.com they would have been treated better.
I loved the community building that happened post-Racefail. There was the famous POC unicorn sci-fi call-in, where POC fans of science fiction and fantasy proclaimed their love for the genre, and brilliant posts by Deepa D, yeloson, delux vivens, skywardprodigal, and many more. People of color who loved pop culture but had issues with representation realized that they were no longer alone. Racefail was the shot that was heard around the world. It may have been just a Livejournal spat, but it quickly snowballed into massive WOC and QTIPOC online organizing on a global scale.
Now one can argue that I should never have placed trust in the white left to begin with, but hey, I’m a Bangladeshi liberal by birth, breeding, and choice, not an angry black woman with justifiable skepticism of white intentions starting in the womb. And the trauma, added to the already toxic brew of body image dysphoria, bipolar disorder, paranoia, social isolation and first world poverty, made me highly suspicious and angry with my white friends in the Vancouver punk scene. What made things substantially worse was that I felt unable to talk to anyone about my severe emotional pain over seeing white leftists whom I had greatly admired doing incredibly shitty things, misrepresenting the people they had sworn to defend the western right from, and lying their asses off. I mean, Racefail was just a Livejournal dust-up, what was there to be angry about?
What made me even angrier about Racefail was that the Nielsen Haydens were Christian leftists. They talk the talk about mercy, but everybody knows that it’s way easier to forgive the people who hurt you than to forgive the people you hurt. They have never forgiven Spiralsheep and Willow for having been the targets of their abuse. And the Nielsen Haydens’ Christian hypocrisy got enabled like hell by their atheist friends and supporters in the sff community.
At this point the discerning reader will ask, “But Sajia, you hate cultural appropriation rhetoric, why aren’t you more sympathetic to the NHs?” While it’s true that cultural appropriation rhetoric has gotten out of hand, there were legitimate concerns at the heart of anti-appropriation ideology. And it did act as a seed for a massive amount of online community building. And it’s hypocritical for the white left to smear POC pop culture activists when they committed just as shitty behavior not just in the netroots blogs, but earlier on Usenet and the western alternative press. And even if Spiralsheep and Willow had been completely 100 percent wrong, that’s no excuse for the asshole behavior of the NHs and the stalking and abusive behavior of Will Shetterly.
I was pissed off at Teresa Nielsen Hayden dismissing our community building as “bullshit identity politics”, especially because Tor’s reinvention as a bastion of pluralism would not have been possible without that community building. As a bellydancer and yogini I’ve been hurt by POC in-fighting and aggression and policing of white femininity, while the Nielsen Haydens seem to have only revitalized their brand through Racefail.
I was trapped in a digital world, knowing it was unhealthy of me to be spending so much time on Livejournal and Dreamwidth, addicted to communal anger. Part of it is that because I am an empath, I over-identified with the pain and anger of the people whose blogs I was reading, and was unable to create, let alone maintain, good boundaries with my internet friends. Physical movement would prove to be my salvation, but it was years before I could forgive myself for being a Muslimah who liked yoga and a Bangladeshi who loved bellydance.
Part of it was social justice discourse’s “ooh shiny” problem. One person would write something full of heartrending emotion and brilliant insight, the blogosphere would go nuts over them, dropping all common sense and boundaries, until the next blog post full of scintillating wit and heartache came along.
But I made some good friends there. Delux vivens always thought highly of me, and at one point said she would have liked to visit South Asia with me as a traveling companion. It was through her that I met hotcoffeems, a mixed race Sufi revert who loved to bellydance, and who was my inspiration for studying Sufism in Vancouver.
I’d written a post on Boobquake that got a lot of mileage on the internet, and through the links delux vivens had posted I had discovered the LJ blog of hotcoffeemississipi. She was a wonderful writer with a wicked sense of humor. She’d studied ballet as a child and gave me a lot of harsh but necessary advice about the problems with trying to study multiple dance forms at the same time. She’d had terrible problems with her abusive ex-husband but finally managed to get some kind of stability in her life.
She had been stalked and harassed by an internet mob accusing her of ethnicity fraud. She was accused of being a white girl playing dress up with hijab and pretending to have black ancestry in her lineage. She had to change her journal name, but that wasn’t enough and she stopped blogging altogether. I was traumatized, realizing that some of the ideas I had in my head were the same ideas used by the bullies to justify their mistreatment of hotcoffeems. I just didn’t like the scapegoating of white feminine expression by social justice discourse, the obsessive cataloging of privilege, the minute dissection of cultural expression in the pursuit of some obscure purity.
There’s something fucked up about people opposing racial categories as a way of policing human behavior and then using those same racial categories to control access to culture.
I hated the Nielsen Haydens for smearing the online POC community I fell in love with and desperately wanted to be a part of. And then I ended up hating that online POC community for smearing the white bellydancers whose art I loved.
I don’t like being asked to give up things that make me happy. I don’t like people whose main occupation in life is policing other people’s pleasure; whether that pleasure be of religion, art, sexuality, movement practices or community.
I blame the Nielsen Haydens for corrupting our POC media fandom community with the lure of book contracts in a bad economy. I am angry with the POC media fandom community for attacking and even slut-shaming white bellydancers and female yoga practitioners WHO NEVER HURT THEM PERSONALLY while accepting a few pennies from white scumbags in the science fiction fandom hierarchy who had a history of hurting POC fans. No, it’s not restitution if the white people in question continue to lie about Racefail.
And the irony is, in the time of the netroots I really wanted to write for Tor.com. But even if I had a bunch of short stories or a novel ready I’ll be double damned if I lend legitimacy to people who won’t apologize for their shitty behaviour and continue to justify their shitty behaviour towards impoverished POC fans who don’t have a manuscript with which to bargain on their end.
When my partner and I walk down the sidewalk, we know people will sometimes shout that we’re “fuckin’ dykes.” When a straight couple goes out in public, they know they won’t get called “fuckin’ breeders” – they have that privilege.
Mainline social justice acknowledges that. It doesn’t pretend that straight and lesbian couples get treated equally, and it condemns the position of privilege enjoyed by heterosexuals relative to LGBT people. However, recognizing the need to end something is only half of a political position – you also need a way to make that change happen.
Social justice promises just that. Its strategy against not just straight privilege, but privilege in general has two prongs: anti-discrimination legislation on the one hand, and individuals changing their conduct on the other. People need to own up to their privilege; then, they must relinquish it.
Now, that implies more than it says. This analysis begins with the experiences of individuals: this couple faces street harassment, that one doesn’t. Then, it generalizes those experiences to larger social groups (Black people, men, bisexuals, and so on). However, it never lets go of its initial individualistic assumptions – the experiences of a group are the experiences believed to be shared by its members.
From there, “opting out” follows logically. Is oppression about individuals being treated unequally because of their demographic position? If so, anti-oppression means working towards equal treatment. Is privilege is the sum of many individual acts of oppression (stacked, like the hierarchy of needs, from microaggressions all the way up to genocide)? Then ending those acts ends privilege. Some can be outlawed (hate violence, for instance). For others, though, you have to convince people to change their behavior. You couldn’t feasibly have a law against not taking women’s opinions seriously, for instance.
So, those with privilege must give it up. Not making use of it seems a reasonable starting point. The article quoted above, for instance, gives as an example not attending a conference that refuses to accommodate wheelchair users. You “opt out” of the benefits, and privilege weakens. To stop privilege, stop participating in it.
In practice, though, that doesn’t work.
But doesn’t fewer people taking advantage of privilege mean fewer people reinforcing it? Even if “opting out” isn’t sufficient by itself, isn’t it a necessary tool?
On the ground, “opting out” fails for two reasons:
“Opting out” is undesirable. When anti-oppression types say “privilege,” what concrete things are they talking about? Sometimes, they mean getting away with things no one should do – committing sexual assault with impunity, for instance. At least as often, though, they mean less-privileged people not getting to do neutral or positive things that the privileged take for granted – not acts of violence, but things that everyone should be able to do. My partner and I risk homophobic harassment when we go outside. Straight couples don’t. Should they “opt out” of leaving the house? After all, they can do so without being bothered by homophobes – that’s privilege. “Opting out” would mean never stepping out of their front door.
“Opting out” is impossible. My partner and I don’t choose to be harassed. Straight people don’t choose not to be. When some people get treated better than others, is it because they somehow control how strangers behave towards them? Should a straight couple say to everyone who walks by, “I know we’re heterosexual, but please treat us no differently than you’d treat lesbians”? If they did, would a homophobe answer, “Oh, happy to oblige! You damn dykes”? If individuals could just will these structures out of their lives (as “opting out” implies), this whole system would have died a long time ago. But that’s not how it works. The social order precedes and transcends the individuals within it.
But if “opting out” is impossible, why does the idea persist?
Well, social justice’s individualism allows for no other conclusion. If privilege boils down to individual actions and individual experiences, then individual choices must be both the problem and the answer. Sure, social justice pays lip service to “structural issues” and “systemic oppression.” But the nitty-gritty of what it means by that always falls back on individual complicity. How “systemic” can a critique be when it doesn’t acknowledge that social organization is more than the sum of the individuals inside it? If “structural” oppression just means that every member of a better-off group is individually complicit in their privilege, doesn’t that reduce oppression to “bad apples?” The bad apples may number in the tens or hundreds of millions, but the essence is still there – the problem is rotten people making rotten choices. It’s still about each person’s individual moral failure. However, there is no mechanism by which you can stop being complicit. So, for social justice, there is no solution. There’s only condemnation without end.
Luckily, though, this framework doesn’t line up with reality. Oppression isn’t the sum of millions of immoral decisions. Liberation is possible. But, it takes something that social justice hates even more than privilege.
Only when men see our work as work-our love as work-and most important our determination to refuse both, will they change their attitude towards us. When hundreds and thousands of women are in the streets saying that endless cleaning, being always emotionally available, fucking at command for fear of losing our jobs is hard, hated work which wastes our lives, then they will be scared and feel undermined as men.
But this is the best thing that can happen from their own point of view, because by exposing the way capital has kept us divided (capital has disciplined them through us and us through them-each other, against each other), we – their crutches, their slaves, their chains – open the process of their liberation.
Privilege leads to unequal treatment, but that’s not where it comes from.
Capitalism involves more than fast-food chains and stock exchanges. It’s an all-encompassing division of labor. Every single task through which humanity continues to exist gets parceled out to one group or another. That’s the material basis of social categories that, at first glance, look either natural or merely cultural.
Social justice will never realize that. Why should it? The activist subculture is mostly middle-class, not working-class. So, it reflects middle-class ideas and middle-class interests.
Do middle-class and ruling-class men and whites have a long-term stake in abolishing their own privilege? No – it gives them an unambiguous competitive advantage in the professions, management, and business. Why else do middle-class people from less-privileged demographics frame their politics in terms of unjust disparities and ethical imperatives? Without a shared material stake in ending privilege, moral self-sacrifice is all that’s left.
Middle-class and ruling-class reformers, though, find themselves in a contradictory position. On the one hand, lacking privilege makes their lives tangibly worse. But on the other, their class position depends on the continued existence of privilege, because the capitalist division of labor depends on it and they depend on capitalism.
So, they end up with equally-contradictory politics. Social justice has no way out.
On more than one occasion, Black workers have forced the employer to open a new job area to them, only to run up against the rigid opposition of white workers.
White revolutionaries must understand, and help the masses of white workers to understand, that the interests of the entire working class can only be served by standing firmly with the Black workers in such cases.
Does that mean that privilege will never go away? If social justice can’t overcome oppression, what can?
Internal divisions notwithstanding, the working class as a whole carries out all of the tasks of human existence. Without workers, there is nothing. But, the working class doesn’t decide the way in which it does that labor. The ruling class of capitalists does – the investors, executives, and business owners who control the physical and social infrastructure through which all work happens (the “means of production“).
Capitalists dictate the social order and exploit the working class, accumulating wealth at workers’ expense. The working class has the ability to overthrow capitalism (since capitalists need workers, but workers don’t need capitalists). It also has an interest in doing so – replacing it with a system in which workers (paid and unpaid) control everything. Obviously, capitalists have good reason to oppose that. So, whenever workers try to collectively pursue their interests, the ruling class opposes them however it can. That ranges from shaping “common sense” to relying on state violence.
The division of labor within the working class both creates and relies on privilege. In doing so, it makes it harder for the working class to effectively struggle against its oppressors. Privileged workers are less likely to side with the rest of their class because, due to privilege, they’re comparatively better off. But, that’s only a short-term interest. In the long term, their interests are the same as other workers’.
So, there’s a material basis for workers to come together and organize against the ruling class – and when they do so, specifically fighting against privilege is ultimately good for them all, even if some are benefitting from privilege at the moment. But, to make that happen, working-class politics has to focus on the long-term goal of ending capitalism and exploitation. It needs the analysis that your privilege here and now is the enemy of your liberation in the future. In other words, if it sticks to “achievable” short-term reforms, it can’t effectively do that because it’s dropped the long-term aim. After all, you can’t focus on long-term interests if you don’t acknowledge them. Moderate socialism isn’t any more useful against privilege than social justice.
What can end privilege?
Individuals can’t “opt out” of privilege because privilege isn’t individual. It’s built into the class system itself. To get rid of it, get rid of class.
But social justice is scared of that conclusion. Its social base is upper-class and middle-class – they’re either at the top of the pyramid or close enough to imagine themselves getting there. They need the class system, but the class system needs privilege.
Fortunately, abolishing privilege doesn’t depend on them. The working class can do it. No one else can. So, if you really want to see the end of privilege, don’t listen to social justice. Build institutions of working-class power.
Back in the 70s, radical feminists had a saying:
There are no individual solutions to social problems.
Privilege is a social problem. You can’t “opt out” of it. So, stop looking for individual solutions.
“Homelessness has become something that is normal, in that we are no longer outraged or shocked by the living conditions some people are forced into.”
From Emma Kathryn
It’s been quite a hard week for my family. My partner’s mum was rushed into hospital with a serious illness, my partner’s work were complete arses about time off, well until I publicly highlighted their treatment of him and their fake public persona. So what was already a bad time was made even more stressful, added to that the everyday pressures of trying to live and raise a family.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a pity party for poor old Emma. Things have improved, my partner’s mum is recovering better than anyone expected and now his employers couldn’t be more accommodating (isn’t it amazing what a little social media campaign can do!).
However, things were put into perspective for me the other day. We were going to the hospital to visit my mum in-law and had just parked the car and were walking through the car-park. Just in front of us were a couple of men, headed in the same direction. I didn’t really take much notice until they stopped at a bin and then started to go through its contents, looking for something to eat.
It was almost surreal, the normality with which they went about looking for food. I would like to say it was shocking, seeing people reduced to finding their food from a rubbish bin, but that would be a lie. Homelessness has become something that is normal, in that we are no longer outraged or shocked by the living conditions some people are forced into.
I’ve written about my town here more than once, always in praise of the people and the place, but homelessness is very real here too, in this small rural town. When I was younger, fifteen or sixteen, the only time I would encounter homelessness was when, with friends, I would go to Nottingham on the train on a Saturday. We would sometimes go ice-skating, followed by a look around the shops. We would skirt around the homeless, scared and awkward because it was alien to us. But at the same time, it was a city and you knew there would be homeless people, it was to be expected.
The homeless are the drop-outs of society, only the term ‘drop-out’ is misleading. To drop out of this society would mean to be free of it, and instead the homeless are not. They have nothing, but also have to survive in this capitalist world where there is no viable alternative, at least not for the poor. To live in a manner that doesn’t rely on money or buying shit, you have to have money. To maintain a certain level of sophistication, such as heating, electricity and so on, you’d have to have the funds to set all of that up in the first place. To live in a more caring way is always discouraged, else it would be cheaper to do so.
So the homeless are the acceptable whipping boy. They are at the very bottom of society.
Here in Britain, and I’m sure countries the world over, the poor are treated abysmally by government. Only recently, with the engagement of Prince Harry and Megan Markle, the leader of Windsor council sparked a massive backlash by demanding the police ‘clear’ the homeless away before the royal wedding.
In another case, Bournemouth Borough council removed a homeless man’s sleeping bag ( yes, in the middle of winter!), deeming it rubbish. The man was found dead under a bridge days later. This is the same council that a few years earlier played bagpipe music at nighttime at train and bus stations to deter rough sleeping.
When we are no longer shocked and outraged about issues that should shock and outrage us, then our perceptions begin to change. In this particular instance, the homeless are seen as an entity, some dirty mass of otherness. Listening to some people, the homeless are almost sub-human, a different species. It becomes easier to dislike, to despise.
In Maidstone, Kent, two young men were recently sentenced to life imprisonment for beating a homeless man to death. And the reason they saw fit to take another’s life? Because they thought it would be funny.
Of course, these actions against the homeless are the extremes. And whilst there is still outcry over the ill-treatment of the homeless, there are still many with a blase attitude, more than people realise, and the problem with such is that it leads to unnecessary cruelties. A friend of mine is a delivery driver for a chain of grocery stores. They told me once that at one shop, the staff had been complaining about a homeless man who’d been eating the food that the shop threw out into the rubbish at the end of every day. Food with nothing wrong with it only that the sell by date runs out the next day. One member of staff piped up, bragging about how the man wouldn’t be eating it again as she’d started pouring bleach onto the food. Food they were throwing out anyway.
It’s this kind of callousness that is widespread. We think that all homeless people are either drug addicts or alcoholics, that they all deserve this fate that has befallen them. Now I’m sure that for some homeless, substance abuse may well have been their downfall, but I also think that people just don’t realise just how easy it is for some types of people to become homeless.
For the working poor in particular, homelessness is only a step or two away. Here’s a scenario that happens all too often here in Britain. Consider a family who live in social housing, a man, woman and child or children. Imagine that the family are poor, perhaps only managing on one wage. Now imagine that the man and the woman split up. Chances are, and statistics would seem to support that the woman stays in the home with the children, and the man moves out. Unless that man can lay his hands on a lump sum of cash to pay a deposit for other accommodation (and who has a lump sum saved away when it’s a struggle to live on what he earns, never mind save some each week?), then that man will struggle to find somewhere to live. If he’s lucky he may have family or friends who can help him out, but if he’s alone, then he really is alone. Because the authorities do not have to help him. There is no housing support for men who are homeless, especially for those without children.
For the working poor, and those without savings, homelessness is never that far away. It might seem like it is, but the reality is that should an emergency occur, or should the breadwinner lose their job and the rent cannot be paid, homelessness becomes a very real threat.
So what an we do? I do not know. We can try and help in any little way we can, with donations of food or money, but all that does is help to alleviate a small measure of discomfort. Until we get rid of a system that would reduce humans to this life because they have no money, then I don’t think we will be able to make any meaningful change. It’s almost funny, that governments can find millions of pounds for wars and their own political agendas, nuclear armourment, highspeed rail (that nobody wants), or bailing out the bankers, but when it comes to the need of the people, there’s no money to be found anywhere.
Until we can get rid of this system that doesn’t value human life, that views us as mere workers, cogs in the machine of industry, then I fear things will stay the same.
My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!
“In today’s age of haphazard integration between trauma and discrete identity politics, the performance of solidarity on the right or left is rarely about actual healing.”
From Pat Mosley
Since publishing my essay Un-Identity: Climbing Down the Other Side of Peak Liberalism, I’ve connected with dozens of other leftists around the world burned out on the hypocrisy and stagnancy of liberal identity politics. Many of us share common experiences of trauma and oppression, some of which fit liberal identity narratives and others of which don’t. Each of us has come to this place of knowing that we cannot live our lives any longer in a state of perpetual outrage, evasion, false confidence, and reactionary, shame-driven, mob politics.
The title of that essay described a sort of mountain, which is what I see when I picture social justice in my mind. At the top, we’re promised this egalitarian utopian paradise, but the way there is constantly obstructed by one thing or another. Sooner or later—and this is where so much connectivity is happening now—we realize that no one has actually seen the mountaintop yet. We’re just believing in stories that other people have told us, or that we’ve overheard them reassuring themselves with. Upon further examination, we realize that this truth—that no one has seen the mountaintop—explains all the conflicting stories we’ve been hearing all along.
Climbing down is a choice I believe more and more of us are making. It’s a humbling process of admitting that we’ve spent a good chunk of our lives fumbling through a quasi-mythic landscape we still have trouble mapping. And along the way down, as we verbalize our political and personal changes, we start uncovering this person we used to be and begin to see more clearly how deeply affected our sense of self and power had become while on the mountain.
This piece is about the vampires many of us became in our quest for the mountaintop, but it’s also about another world beyond that landscape, where our utopian visions might actually still be grown.
How Social Media, Identity Politics, & Trauma Created Social Acceptance of Vampirism
The kind of liberal identity politics I describe in Un-Identity and join countless other marginalized peoples in critiquing have in fact been critiqued by leftists for generations. This particular social conflict between leftist unity and liberal divisiveness is nothing new. Nevertheless, I believe that in the 2000s with the advent and centralization of social media platforms, we entered a new period in this dialogue. This period has so far enabled unhealthy relationships between people played out in politicized terms and revamped social justice movements.
Both internet forums and sociopolitical movements have always had their toxic personalities. Social media cannot be blamed for producing them. However, it is my belief that popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have inadvertently encouraged toxicity, although I do not believe this was their intention. Instead, I think the promises of social media—the promises of connecting people across the world, providing a platform to raise awareness of injustice, and amplifying a voice of the oppressed—were intended as an answer to the relative isolation, limits, and ineptitude of earlier internet forums and social movements hoping to accomplish the same.
I first joined Facebook in 2005 as a way to keep in touch with high school friends as we graduated and moved away from home. Beyond known friends, Facebook groups offered a means of connecting with broader social groups, like GLBT people, Pagans, Deaf people, etc. from around the country, and eventually the world. This masterfully resolved the scarcity of brick and mortar community spaces or dispersion of demographic groups by permitting even the most isolated person the possibility of connecting with others like them through simply creating an account and joining a group.
I think Facebook recognized its role in this niche too. In 2006, the social media platform was one of the few places where gay marriage was permitted. We could indicate on our profiles what gender(s) we were interested in, and even list our same-sex partners as spouses. Add-on apps allowed us to expand on this information with an earlier, 2000s-era version of the dozens of genders now recognized by many social media outlets. Additional developments, such as the “like” button, the news feed, and the ability for individual users to share or up-vote links to articles, videos, and blogs to and from all their connections through it, created a platform with extraordinary potential for facilitating social awareness and change.
With this potential, however, are several drawbacks. Concern over “fake news” has only recently become an issue people expect social media to resolve. And concern over how the instant feedback of “likes” and other reactions affect our communication styles and content choices is yet to reach the same level of alarm in social media ethics. Perhaps most relevant to political discourse aided by social media though should be recognition that microblogging platforms like Facebook and Twitter indirectly discourage nuance either through character limits to posts or the instant feedback culture which seems to reward reactive, short, invective posts over long-form, more emotionally moderated content.
More than simply rewarding sometimes toxic behavior with a sea of likes and shares, microblogging platforms encourage a specific type of political analysis. This analysis avoids logical, constructive, contextual, or critical thinking in favor of emotional, destructive, selective, and reductive narratives which complement or reproduce classically politicized identity narratives.
For example, consider reactions to the recent wave of sexual assault survivors publicly describing their ordeals and in some cases also identifying people in power who perpetrated them. Almost immediately this phenomenon was absorbed into the classic feminist identity narrative of powerful men abusing powerless women. Experiences outside of this narrative, particularly those involving trans victims, were critiqued for “erasing” the experiences of women. Likewise, women sharing stories about being raped by trans people were critiqued for “transphobia,” and many men who shared stories of sexual assault by women were also shut down for the “sexism” of taking this moment away from women collectively and for “distracting” from the evidently more important issue of men assaulting women. After a few weeks of this, an additional layer of public shaming was added, and that was the apparent transgression of not naming the specific creator of the hashtag #MeToo when describing one’s sexual assault.
I’ve identified three major takeaways from observing these reactions. First, they were a reminder that liberal identity politics care more about preserving a specific narrative (e.g. men over women, white over black, straight over queer, etc.) than with actually acknowledging and ending the violent or oppressive acts themselves. Second, the microblogging structure of the social media platforms this movement took place on enabled a viral spreading of shame and guilt directed at survivors for the sake of preserving these narratives and an irrational set of social hierarchies or expected checkboxes (e.g. naming the creator of a hashtag, not acknowledging that minorities can be rapists, etc.). Lastly, the trauma of human existence is widespread and so far failed by the narrow-mindedness of identity-dominant thinking.
Older leftists I have worked with have often related their burnout in decades past from previous iterations of feminist and social justice movements. Their stories communicate a similarly observed irrational preoccupation with identity-based narratives to the detriment of resolution on the issues they aim to address. Where I believe my generation differs is that we are additionally dealing with a degree of instantaneous global connectivity previously unknown. Social media is not simply informing us about issues halfway around the world, it is enabling a cultural expectation that we will immediately and continuously offer the correct opinion and precise amount of properly constructed outrage regarding each and every one of them, or risk public shaming, guilt pressure, and accusations of all manner of -isms and -phobias. And while these politics may conceptualize themselves as radical, revolutionary, or far to the left, the reference points they consistently cite rarely predate post-modern liberal identity discourse.
Take for instance the romanticized image of the Stonewall Uprising regularly conjured up in contemporary political debates internal to LGBT+ folks. Many of today’s activists are utterly convinced of the “fact” that either trans women of color uniquely led the riots, or that their alleged presence at a New York bar in the 1960s is somehow relevant or obvious justification for trans inclusion in political movements today. References to the social advances enjoyed by Soviet trans people or the relative periods and regions of social acceptance enjoyed by pre-modern or ancient crossdressing and binary-defying people are even rarer than references to protests or uprisings only slightly earlier than Stonewall, such as Compton’s or Dewey’s. This selective history is indicative of the political context the narrative complements. The departure of mid-century liberal discourse from earlier leftist movements is the start of liberal identity histories.
My criticism of these politics is not coming from a place of purity or superiority. Rather, I have been the exact type of person I am criticizing. Before I left Facebook, my news feed was routinely swallowed by similar demands—for trans people to account for rapists who happen to be transgender, for Jews of the diaspora to account for the actions of the state of Israel, for Muslims to account for the actions of ISIL, for Wiccans to account for incidents of homophobia or transphobia in individual covens, for liberals and leftists to account for how the federal government spends our taxes, etc. Like many people my age, I engaged in these tactics and likely helped teach their art to those performing them today.
Late economist Mark Fisher described this form of social media based activism as vampirism in his 2013 essay Exiting the Vampire Castle.
“The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if – and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought – that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.”
Prior to Fisher, however, Anton LaVey also correlated guilt as an influence tactic with what he called “psychic vampires,” or people who feed off the labor (emotional, physical, or otherwise) of others.
“Often the psychic vampire will use reverse psychology, saying: ‘Oh, I couldn’t ask you to do that’—and you, in turn, insist upon doing it. The psychic vampire never demands anything of you. That would be far too presumptuous. They simply let their wishes be known in subtle ways which will prevent them from being considered pests. They ‘wouldn’t think of imposing’ and are always content and willingly accept their lot, without the slightest complaint—outwardly!” (p. 75, The Satanic Bible)
Where LaVey observes reverse psychology employed by psychic vampires of his day, however, I would argue that today’s vamps are keen to make direct demands of other people, and that doing so is even now considered an acceptable moral standard or virtue we should oblige.
Responsibility for this cultural shift towards acceptable vampirism I believe does not rest solely on Facebook, Twitter, or social media in general. Rather, it is the perfect storm of these impersonal platforms combined with the failures of liberal identity politics and the continuation of trauma on new generations.
A Stab At Why We Become Vampires
“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” Junot Diaz
Like Diaz and many other marginalized people, I grew up in a world where no mirror held my reflection. I was keenly aware of my queerness and troubled by gender at a very early age. Disability, sexuality, mental un-wellness, trauma, and pursuit of spiritual alternatives to the insular Christianity I grew up in added additional dimensions to my self-perception as a weirdo and clear deviant from the norm. Navigating a world where these things provoke violent outbursts and social punishments has pretty well defined my relationship to other people since before I was a teenager, and continues in many ways to define my (anti-)sociability to this day.
As I’d wager many people torn between presenting as one thing but being another have discovered, writing has always helped me bridge the fractures of my existence. And coming of age in the era of MySpace, Livejournal, and then Facebook, social media specifically offered me an impersonal means of experimental self-expression for the self that wasn’t always immediately apparent to people I wasn’t sure if I could trust. I think it’s on that bridge—having a means of saying something without actually saying it to someone, knowing you can read reactions before having to deal with them, and even having the option to delete and block people or feedback you don’t like—that the vampire started to take hold.
My vampire was an early-adopter of social media activist strategies, frequently sharing numerous articles and generating political commentary throughout every single day as soon as the possibility to do so became an option. Doing so gave me a sense of power and self-worth. Sharing political articles I agreed with reassured me that I had always been right all those years in communities that deny climate change and (at least from 1999-2002) wholeheartedly believed in an imminent apocalypse. Sharing in the outrage of communities beyond myself made me feel like I was part of something big, part of a family, part of a voice, real. More than educating others or raising awareness—the promises social media is justified through—I dove into the queer callout culture of the early 2000s, and reveled in the opportunity to publicly tear down others, finally part of a clique in power somewhere.
It was punishment for trauma I had endured. It was punishment my targets usually didn’t deserve. And it was punishment not only politically protected by the liberal ethics my generation inherited from previous identity movements, but it was punishment bizarrely accepted and even encouraged by many outsiders and some recipients, eager to demonstrate their submissive status and dutiful liberal loyalty to the most sadistic and vampiric among us.
My addictive engagement in this style of activism paralleled my descent into drug abuse, as it did with many of the other activists I surrounded myself with. We used drugs and activism as a cover for the frozen, traumatized state we found ourselves in. Objective or subjective but real enough either way, we perceived oppression and -phobia like walls of jagged glass shards closing in on us everywhere. Everything was wrong. Everything hurt. And there seemed no way out of either. Too poor, too traumatized, too addicted, too…everything to either seek or receive psychological help, we became a generation of social justice vampires, temporarily sated on a lifetime full of outrage typed out at lightning speed, sent without regret, and protected by the constant threat of publicly shaming anyone who would challenge us.
Importantly, we got here through being wounded, and not because of some innate character flaw or natural predisposition towards psychic manipulation. Wounded people are susceptible to vampirism. We give empathy to people who appear to be in need because we know what it is like to be in need and to be ignored. The guilty world that makes us needs no accuser, and in its shame rewards our social outbursts with whatever we demand of it. Vampirism is taught this way. It is made and rewarded by the same guilty culture yet to abandon the monstrous process it has initiated.
And our politics are not helping. Take for instance, popular insistence that the average lifespan of trans women (variously further distinguished as “trans women of color” or “Latina trans women”) is between 30 to 35 years (I have also heard 25) or that 1 in 8 (I have also encountered “1 in 7” or “1 in 12”) will be murdered that are routinely cited by alleged trans community advocates to justify trans political inclusion. Leaving aside the dramatic leap from murder rates and lifespan to non-discrimination ordinances, to my knowledge, no study has ever been conducted which could produce an average lifespan or murder rate for trans people of any variety (please correct me if I’m wrong). The closest data I can find would be a 2016 study by the Williams Institute which suggests there are 1.4 million trans people in the U.S. So then, for the 1 in 12 statistic to be true, that would suggest that around 117,000 trans people in the U.S. were murdered in 2016. GLAAD, on the other hand, reported 27.
These statistical fictions provide a free channel of criticism for conservatives whose research into the origins of this alleged data will not begin and end at “it must be true because a trans activist said it is.” Furthermore, this alleged data amounts to not only an expression of psychic vampirism when used to garner movement support, but also a form of psychological terrorism against trans youth, who I have witnessed falling into mental un-wellness upon internalizing the message that their lives will soon be ending. It is fitting then, that so many trans people find themselves attracted to vampiric relationships with the world considering the undeath our politics relegate us to.
Additionally, for those whose trauma aligns to classical identity narratives, liberal politics encourage this anger and sense of powerlessness. And for the traumatized who fall outside these narratives, right-wing identity politics are ready to pick up what liberals discard. The wickedness of our neoliberal state, however, is in the diversity it has assumed into its machinery and oppressive institutions. Failing to be universal under scrutiny, such identity narratives tunnel into analysis of increasingly micro-aggressive and interpersonal slights, paralleling a drive away from institutional changes and into cultural warfare for both right- and left-wingers. Yet at the height of my vampiric identity sectarianism, every woman and queer along with most of the men I knew had a sexual assault story. We are a generation of kids the world has touched and terrorized, gaslit and disowned. But our politics are yet to become as universal as our trauma.
For instance, concurrent to the recent #MeToo movement has been insistence on generalizations like “believe women” rather than “believe survivors,” which in turn politicize specific narratives that certainly help many women and girls, but don’t address the problem of sexual violence beneath the particular vehicle of sexist dynamics. These narratives become a form of gaslighting. We tell men and boys (and often by extension, many trans folks) that they didn’t grow up in a culture that sexualized them from a young age, subjected them to violently enforced, abusive gender expectations, or positioned them to be exploited later in life.
Collectively, we are tasked with accountability for the same system we have struggled against to survive. The first time I can remember being penetrated was by two boys in kindergarten—also the first time I remember girls (following the example of adults) ruthlessly teasing me for not being manly enough. As a student massage therapist, both men and women inappropriately asked (or grabbed) me to perform sex acts for them during our sessions. I started wearing loose long pants when I walk at the park alone on days I don’t feel like being catcalled by old men eager to tell me how great my body looks. I spent several years of my life putting on weight and ignoring my hygiene in hopes of being less attractive. A lifetime of being spit on, teased, excluded, and threatened for failing (or succeeding) to meet gendered expectations for masculinity have left me with a voice that changes pitch as a defensive mechanism, a heart rate and blood pressure which register specific traumatic triggers I am still too ashamed to name, an internal sense of self so dissociated sometimes that I’ve had nightmares based around not knowing how to gender myself, as well as a seemingly insurmountable compulsion to be in control, in charge, and completely severed from financial interdependence or dependence on others (along with a deep sense of shame when I fail at these things).
I personally didn’t realize the prevalence of male struggles under gender until I uncharacteristically made the radical decision to get a drink with a homophobe instead of yelling at him on the internet. I learned that he had been repeatedly molested by a gay uncle for most of his childhood, and even he admitted that his hatred of gay men now was projection of his uncle’s crimes onto others. He didn’t know another way to recover. Whereas liberal identity politics offered me the opportunity to perform my traumatized outrage as a reaction to homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity, conservative identity politics offered him the opportunity to perform his traumatized outraged as a reaction to the homosexual agenda and liberal destruction of the family. No politics offer us the opportunity to be outraged at sexual violence itself.
I’ve met others like him since then—male sexual abuse survivors relegated to the sidelines of popular feminist rhetoric and so taking refuge in vampiric conservative politics for the same reasons we do on the left too. Our traumas are politicized by culture wars in need of proxies. And none of us seem particularly better off or healed by their narratives.
Perhaps that is because in today’s age of haphazard integration between trauma and discrete identity politics, the performance of solidarity on the right or left is rarely about actual healing. Instead it is about reinforcing a politicized social generalization, that in turn justifies continued mistrust and separation. For those of us who fall outside these narratives, there is no mass movement of help coming. But like our friends who are narratively included, we fall onto a path with two main trails: be angry about how much the world has failed us, or learn to move the fuck on from it. All social pressure is towards vampiric anger, not resolution.
Back From the Grave
Coming down off the mountain, exiting the castle, returning from the grave, or whatever metaphorical landscape we define the vampiric phenomenon by, another world is possible.
And I am not just telling you that to reassure either of us that there is a mountaintop we’ll eventually get to if we keep trying. You know this truth too. Everyone who has not spent a chunk of their lives consumed by political narratives is out living in this world along with all those social media dropouts, post-leftist burnouts, and post-vamps who have already done exactly what you and I are doing now.
I believe a defining difference between this world and the world of the vampiric mountain is an actual embrace of human and planetary diversity. Whereas vampires are obsessively concerned with maintaining strict separation among equally discrete identity groups further organized hierarchically by victimhood/worth, the post-vampiric world acknowledges the messy and flawed, mixed race, mixed gender, mixed religion world we inhabit. This other world is a space to perceive one another from a horizontal power potential, where all are potentially comrades and equals, especially in the vulnerability necessary to see this world. Whereas identity politics patrol these sorts of hobbled together, impersonal communities that seek to define vastly different people by a common denominator, and then at least on some level, the shared victimhood of that label, in another world, we are already living, working, and loving side by side without the arbitrary division of these politics.
Freeing ourselves from vampirism necessitates also freeing ourselves from the thrall of identity politics. These politics rely on a perpetual powerlessness in order to maintain their boundaries. They assert that we are so weak without one another that we must face the world behind the shield of a larger group. The idea of healing or moving on from trauma, choosing not to be bothered by interpersonal drama or institutional issues beyond our control are direct affronts to this system because doing these things is to claim strength and sovereignty as an individual.
Alternative to vampirism is the choice to make ourselves vulnerable to the physical communities around us, where we connect to food systems, where we connect to healthcare, where we connect mutually to what was once the commons. This choice requires us to find the strength to refrain from taking personally the flaws in others we may have grown accustomed to attacking. This choice is about growing enough good faith to keep trying to work together. We will fail, often and messily. And we will offend and hurt one another in the learning process. But—and I believe those of you who have also dropped out of the vampiric system know this too—if we honestly want to see a world that is different, that is better, that is healed, then we must try something new until we get it right. I think exiting our vampiric landscapes requires more than the political re-attunement towards class unity rather than binary thinking that Fisher suggests, and more than the ah-ha moment of gaining the upper hand against vampires that LaVey suggests. I think we need more than reflections in the mirrors we create. We need a world to live in too. We have to change the very way we relate to one another.
Our survival is common. Our desire to heal from trauma is common. Recognizing those common conditions seems like a good place to start to me.
Pat is making magic in the Carolina Piedmont. His blog can be found at patmosley.wordpress.com
“we have lost half of our wildlife in the past 40 years. The implications are inconceivable and beyond words, and calls for global action on a coordinated scale beyond anything that has been seriously considered by the so-called political leaders of the “world community”. This will require an immediate mobilization of international resources to combat three main crises: global warming, habitat loss, and accelerating species extinction rates, all of which are interconnected.”
From William Hawes
“Forty percent of the United States drains into the Mississippi. It’s agriculture. It’s golf courses. It’s domestic runoff from our lawns and roads. Ultimately, where does it go? Downstream into the Gulf.”
Our civilization is headed for a downfall, to be sure, in part due to the massive gulf between our hopes for the future and the omnipresent inertia regarding social change in mainstream politics, though a more apt analogy for our society might be circling the drain. The dark, shadow side of our industrial farming practices in the US has resulted in the hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately the size of New Jersey and growing every year. Caused by excess nitrates, phosphates, and various chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides draining from farmland into the Mississippi river basin, toxic algal blooms kill millions of fish, shrimp, shellfish, and, almost certainly, thousands of marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico every year. There are hundreds of these dead zones around the world’s oceans, caused by agribusiness and sewage runoff from the world’s largest cities. There are also garbage patches in the Pacific (actually diffuse swathes of ocean littered mainly by microplastics) comparable to the size of Mexico.
Meanwhile on land, we have lost half of our wildlife in the past 40 years. The implications are inconceivable and beyond words, and calls for global action on a coordinated scale beyond anything that has been seriously considered by the so-called political leaders of the “world community”. This will require an immediate mobilization of international resources (a Global Marshall plan, which will need trillions of dollars of aid redistributed to the developing nations over decades) to combat three main crises: global warming, habitat loss, and accelerating species extinction rates, all of which are interconnected.
All of this ecological destruction has been driven by America’s most popular exports: capitalism and imperialism. Eight individuals have as much wealth as 3.5 billion, with approximately 20 million worldwide at risk of starvation. This is not simply unfair: it is an immoral and indefensible state of affairs. It must be acknowledged by the general public that capitalism, buttressed by the propaganda of “liberal democracy” in the West, uses moral relativism as its framework. The externalities of a pillaged, ravaged planet, billions in poverty, and diminished resource base are not taken into account by mainstream economics. If rare earth minerals and metals were properly accounted for, a car would likely cost six figures, and a computer five figures. This would be an unobtainable and untenable situation for the average middle-class American, as only the rich could afford such luxuries, and thus, the majoritarian tyranny of our narcissistic and ahistorical culture continues.
There are half-baked refutations which reactionaries trot out to defend US hegemony, but do not carry much weight: other nations besides the US are consumerists and warlike as well, the socialist nations of the Eastern bloc had horrendous environmental records, China and Russia are also imperialistic and environmentally deranged, etc.
All of these arguments have grains of truth, but they elide the greater picture: America drives the global economy and holds it hostage at the same time, continually punishing vassals who defy it and using the World Bank and IMF as economic vampires, sucking continents dry through crushing debts, privatizations, austerity measures, as well as using diplomatic blackmail, covert espionage, and proxy death squads. Three of the most illuminating works in this realm are Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, Michel Chossudovsky’s The Globalization of Poverty, and John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman.
Examples from Political Philosophy
Thus the US certainly stands out as an “exceptional” nation, pillaging the Earth and forcing other countries to do so, so as to forestall economic depression and stave off extreme poverty in the developing nation-states which must compete or die. Concomitant with this Western-led death-impulse is Agamben’s “state of exception”, where the citizen has been stripped of all notions of rights and justice in a permanent state of emergency. Under the Patriot Act and NDAA, any notion of due process has been shredded for US citizens, and of course the situation is beyond mad when considering the psychopathic torture carried out at Bagram AFB outside Kabul, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the globe-spanning “rendition archipelago” which has to be assumed is still ongoing, despite Obama’s past-tense use of the phrase “we tortured some folks”, spoken back in 2014.
If the culmination of the totalitarian impulse is the gulag or concentration camp, the infernal apotheosis of education in the United States would have to be the School of the Americas, the US Army base in Georgia which was and still remains the paragon of higher learning for torturers, right-wing death squads, fascists juntas, and drug traffickers looking to make a mark in Latin America. The US exports death-education (practical skills for legions of buzz-cut military/ intelligence clones/clowns, not just theoretical book-learnin’) at an industrial scale, which led to hundreds of thousands of desaparicidos (the disappeared) in the 1970s and 80s who were shot, hung, drowned, or thrown from planes throughout South and Central America.
Of course, if you want to peer into our dystopian future domestically, we will be experiencing more and more “blowback” from disaffected citizens and terrorists angered at our imperialism: look no further than the attack and reaction to the Boston bombing of 2013. Citizens of the greater Boston area were told to “shelter in place” and be on the lookout, creating a de-facto lockdown in the 10th largest metro area of our nation. The whole situation was Bradburyian (Bradburyesque?) and an out-of-control response to a few deaths that would barely cause a blink in terms of law-enforcement response for most parts of the world.
We are now faced with Bentham’s panopticon: an open air prison of a country where we work, shop, party to escape our drudgery and captivity, and go home to hide from the storms raging outside our doors. “Fun” is encouraged, but genuine fulfillment, spiritual and psychological health, are scorned. We are faced with a fascism that cannot be named as such, and rather than face the music, brave-hearted citizens, activists, and dissidents are faced with what Phil Rockstroh dubbed the “tyranny of amiability” when discussing issues that may cause anger, sadness, and discomfort. Personally, I have noticed this is particularly bad among the Baby Boomers, even those who’ve faced economic or personal hardships. Generally speaking, they are addicted to a cult of positivity, where any honest portrayal of our social and ecological crises is deemed “cynical” and “pessimistic”. GenXers and Millennials are not much better, with the latter crowd (my own age group) being much more amenable to socialist policies, at least. Yet there is, of course, a huge majority indulging in escapism, through our digital devices and social media: so much for a so-called “Christian nation”, where it is expressly pointed out to “put away childish things”.
We are told that the elites are continually “manufacturing consent” as Herman (RIP) and Chomsky pointed out, using Walter Lippmann’s phrase. Yet I believe it’s worth asking to what extent this applies: don’t most American consumers know and acknowledge there is “slavery stitched into the fabric of our clothes”, as Brett Dennen pointed out? We know child slave labor in the Congo provides the coltan for our cell phones, yet we do nothing. False consciousness and false needs only explain so much: many Americans seem to relish their place in the hierarchy of the global economy, which necessarily involves exploiting the proletariat in far-off countries. Apathy and lack of empathy seem to be fundamental features at play here. While we may be in an “inverted totalitarian” system, it is by and large one of our own acquiescence.
What does this tell us? For one thing, it seems to indicate that this academic terminology does not viscerally describe what is going on here: in blunter vocabulary, a brutal campaign of dehumanization, mind-control, and brainwashing of the public has been ongoing for centuries, led by the Western imperial nations.
What is needed, then, is a form of “cognitive mapping” as Jameson spelled it out. Part of this involves sketching the psychogeography of the cityscape that the Situationists had in mind. Another avenue pertains to anyone who has taken a cross-country road trip in the US, or visited a drug-infested rust belt town, or dilapidated urban area: the endless monotony of the same crappy chain restaurants, strip-malls, and convenience stores, and documenting the utter alienation from a sense of place and time that results.
The sense of transience and utter meaninglessness of living under corporate American control can be overwhelming at times. There is a “need for roots”, and if our system does not provide it, our collective culture must be reoriented or undergo a revolution, as Simone Weil wrote:
“There are collectivities which, instead of serving as food, do just the opposite: they devour souls. In such cases, the social body is diseased, and the first duty is to attempt a cure; in certain circumstances, it may be necessary to have recourse to surgical methods.”
This feeling of a being a consumer, floating above the world but never really grasping it, induces a sense of vertigo. Christy Rogers is on point when she writes that: “This is the capitalist utopia: the absolute antithesis of home.” Economic precarity is omnipresent, leading to severe stress in the poor and working classes, resulting in anomie and a rise in various criminal behaviors, as explained by Robert Merton’s Strain Theory. Peter McLaren (giant of critical pedagogy along with Freire and Giroux) and Ramin Farahmandpur write of the “Vertigo of Global Capitalism”, and Jock Young writes of this feeling as well:
“Vertigo is the malaise of late modernity: a sense of insecurity of insubstantiality, and of uncertainty, a whiff of chaos and a fear of falling. The signs of giddiness, of unsteadiness, are everywhere…”
I believe this explains the illogic behind the comments of scientific experts like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk: they feel the vertigo, realize the unstable height our civilization has reached, and yet their answer is based out of fear: to travel to other planets and solar systems rather than cleaning up our own home.
Towards a New Science: Holism and Convergence
Mapping our natural, local environment is of vital importance. The best model I can give to you all is the “Where You At?” quiz, which asks the reader to investigate bioregionalism, including your local soil, farming methods, geology, climate, local flora and fauna, and more. I first came across the quiz in Carolyn Merchant’s Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World, which I recommend for everyone.
The return to sustainable, organic agriculture, cooperatively owned, has to be rapidly increased, starting yesterday. Pesticide use from glyphosate (Round-Up) and atrazine are making our entire planet a toxic environment, with cancer and chronic health conditions rising in the general population. We are still dealing with the depravations of past generations, as well. Myself and others have postulated that millions have and continue to die early from the atmospheric nuclear testing of the 50s and 60s; for me, this was confirmed as true when a top former scientist in the NIH agreed with me in private conversation.
Only a rationally planned and ecologically-aware system, locally organized and at the same time globally integrated, can solve our crises. This will require fostering an internationalist outlook: we are interconnected with human societies worldwide, and as Western nations exploit the Global South, economies are destroyed, the Earth degraded, and millions of innocents suffer and die from preventable illness and climate and ecologically-related catastrophes each year. To anesthetize the masses in the West, pharmaceutical companies will attempt to market more and more painkillers and psychotropic pills to create an ever more docile, idiotic, and ill society.
People of color continue to suffer the most. As this brilliant study tragically shows, psychological and social stressors among minorities and environmental exposures to toxic and carcinogenic pollutants have a negatively synergistic effect on minority communities, leading to cascades of disease and epidemics of suffering. Unsafe industries are and were zoned irrationally or de-facto illegally in inner cities, with housing projects and low-income areas forced to suffer the consequences.
Albert Einstein made a terrific explanation for scientific and democratic planning of society in his essay “Why Socialism?”. It should be noted that if past political and business leaders in the mid-twentieth century would not listen to the greatest scientist of their time, there is no reason why today citizens should ask, on bent knee, to try and hold power accountable simply using rational arguments. A peaceful revolution must be stoked among the populace in the West.
Obsessing over the big names in science sometimes obscures the lesser-known greats: one of my personal favorite trail-blazers was Lynn Margulis, creator and popularizer of the endosymbiotic theory (in spite of the paternalistic douchebaggery and resistance from her colleagues), which postulates that bacteria merged with the precursors of animal and plant cells (eukaryotes) in a mutually beneficial way. This applies also at the extra-cellular level (symbiosis and reciprocal altruism) and a few popular examples are lichen, corals, clownfish and sea anemone, and many species of sharks and cleaner fish. Interconnectedness and cooperation, not just random mutations, are the drivers of evolution and sustain the material existence of myriad species. We are not exempt from this rule of nature, and we call learn to model societies via biomimicry, to create a regenerative, not degrading, culture.
Today, the natural sciences are so complex that it is impossible to be at the cutting-edge of research with a narrow specialty in one field: microbiologists are in constant collaboration with geneticists who integrate advancements with biochemists, and botanists must rely on help from mycologists when examining soil ecology. E.O. Wilson explains this much better than I could, and foresees the rise of a sort of unified theory of the social sciences in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. I think Convergence Theory has a better ring to it. As Wilson says, ethics is everything, and ecology is the keystone science which explains the interconnectedness of all things, which was obvious to all ancient societies and the Earth-centered indigenous ones of today: a world culture steeped in ecological ethics is our only chance for survival.
Cooperation, reciprocation, and kindness towards strangers were the rule for 99.9% of human existence. As Pulitzer-prize nominated author Barry Brown explains in his book Humanity: The World Before Religion, War & Inequality, complex trade routes of our common ancestors existed 400,000 years ago on the east coast of Africa, and there are no records or archaeological evidence of large-scale warfare before 4000 BCE. Human society was almost totally peaceful and egalitarian throughout history.
Many other great thinkers have called for a return to harmonious and peaceful existence: Fritjof Capra, E.F. Schumacher, and James Lovelock come to mind. Yet what these authors point out is antithetical in one important sense to the mass of Westerners: advocating for de-growth, followed by a rationally, planned, sustainable, steady-state economy which distributes aid internationally based on need.
Thus the mainstream Left (we need a living wage!) and mainstream Right (bring back the manufacturing jobs!) are both deluded: our economic system is suicidal for the planet and our own species in the long term. As long as the masses cry out in favor of short-term economic growth instead of the need for generational rational planning of society, neoliberal hegemony will continue.
Decentralization and direct democracy are key here, although a hierarchy of scientists must be able to inform the public through deliberative councils, spreading environmental information as it evolves, explaining the consequences in layman’s terms. Thus we avoid the issue of false balance, where the media provides “equal space” to sides of issues like global warming, where an IPCC scientist is countered with an oil executive or lobbyist in a debate for “fair and balanced” reporting.
Further, a Green constitution must be put in place as a safeguard against majoritarian voting which threaten the environment. This is called the precautionary principle, totally needed in any Green society. The conversion to a vegetarian based diet, and the voluntary depopulation of overcrowded parts of the planet through a campaign of women’s education, gender and racial equality, free contraceptives, and monetary incentives is needed to lower the strain on the Earth’s resources. Gender equality is a pillar of the Green agenda, and rules should be in place to provide half of senior government positions to women, which would immediately create a more peaceful, egalitarian, and environmental-friendly community of nations.
Then there are issues of labor and social participation. There is the idea that a Universal Basic Income will solve all our problems, which is a fallacy. I’m overall in favor of a UBI, but there are limitations here which must be discussed, especially considering elites like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are coming out in favor of UBI.
Although it may seem like a pipe-dream today, it’s my opinion that the “left-wing” (say, Sanders/Warren) of the Democratic Party could one day promote policies such as the UBI to dismantle what remains of the welfare state. It’s also possible that more carrots will be introduced down the line such as healthcare for all, free college, and an end to student debt. The catch is that it will be a bribe to promote stability domestically, while meanwhile the American Empire will march on overseas, continuing to use economic leverage to exploit the Global South, and also deploying military force with drones and special forces to continue to destabilize entire regions and displace millions.
Also, I am wary of any imagined utopian society based on UBI which is fully-automated, the “Star Trek socialism” which I believe many Lefties secretly pine for. Let me be frank: I am by no means anti-progress: science and technology have their place if managed properly outside of a capitalist framework. Yet, I believe this must be stated clearly: I value manual and mental labor that informs, inspires, and feeds the community as sacred work. I don’t want to live in a society where rooftop solar panels totally power our hydroponic veggies grown in factory warehouses, or synthetic meat in our Petri dishes in labs, while we push buttons.
I am not entirely against this turn towards an automated economy, but I think there are limitations here in which the techno-futurists are not accounting for: namely, more worker alienation as our machines widen the gap between nature and ourselves, breeding further specialization and vertical hierarchical civic relations, which are inherently damaging to the social fabric.
Chaos Politics and a Viable Alternative
Finally, after hundreds of years of capitalism and colonialism, we’ve arrived at the great unraveling. As István Mészáros brilliantly explained, “Capital’s Historic Circle is Closing”. He writes that, our “sustainable alternative can only be a radically different social metabolic order” and correctly notes that “the requirements of sustainability imply a societal reproductive order with its consciously articulated-autonomously planned and exercised-mode of decision making”. This will require, for him, “the total eradication of the Leviathan state”.
This will mean the breakup of the USA, which of course makes many people extremely uncomfortable. Yet America is a historical aberration: land stolen from Native Americans, an early textile economy based on chattel slavery, global imperial wars, one hundred years of segregation, structural racism against people of color including a prison-industrial complex and blighted inner cities, etc. There are good reasons that, due to its internal contradictions, in a generation or two the US could go the way of the USSR or Yugoslavia, or face a crippling recession spanning decades which would reduce the vast majority of the population to increasing economic precarity.
In the event we seriously consider reorienting our culture, social justice could likely require some sort of framework of law for the return of Native lands to form their own countries or autonomous regions. Reparations and redistribution of wealth are vital, as studies have shown that white households have total assets ten or more times the amount of African-American and Hispanic families.
Where’s the money to pay for all this? There is about 32 trillion dollars stashed by the super-rich is offshore bank accounts. Just a fraction of this amount, distributed worldwide, could solve world hunger, homelessness, poverty, preventable disease, and provide a 100% renewable energy grid for the globe if properly managed. However, if this is not done, the super-rich will soon own everything, and it’s quite possible in the coming decades that significant parts of the globe could ignite into Hobbesian anarchy due to lack of food, access to clean water, and infrastructural damage due to deadly weather and global warming-driven events.
Collapse has happened many times in great civilizations, and the masses had no idea what was coming, doing little to prepare, as academics like Tainter and Diamond have explained. Through systems theory, the best scientists have explained time and time again that our world is entering a period of crisis never seen before. Politically, you can see this chaos emerging, personified in leaders like nationalist neo/proto-fascists such as Trump, Le Pen, Erdogan, Putin, Xi, Modi.
Consider Trump: many adjectives come to mind such as buffoon, clown, con-man. Yet what come to mind for me are the chthonic, atavistic impulses he embodies. This is a dark ages brand of politics.
Luckily, there may be glimmers of hope in the chaos politics Trump encourages. Thankfully, he does not seem to have any hard ideology, but is rather an opportunist, largely concerned with his petit-bourgeois hotel and real estate empire. Embodying a more venal form of capital in these very weird times, he along with his far-right brethren nonetheless around the world are forming what in chaos theory is known as a “strange attractor”: a basin (swamp pit might be the more appropriate term for these thugs) in which all points in the system of global capital are revolving in multiple dimensions. Eventually, in many of these non-linear mathematical models, bifurcations occur in the system: in a political system where “all politics is populist” as Mouffe might say, new alternatives to the system spring into existence, personified by Trump and Sanders, Corbyn and Farage, Melenchon and Le Pen.
Amazingly, non-linear dynamics in physics and biochemistry result in a higher state of order: this is how life emerged from the pre-biotic soup of fatty membranes, nucleotides, and proto-amino acids of the ancient Earth billions of years ago. In the same way, our highly complex social system allows for the possibility of seemingly disparate and splintered citizen movements, non-governmental organizations, and non-profit cooperatives to coalesce and resist.
We must combat the irrationality and “higher immorality” of the elites (Mills) by eliminating their hegemony in the areas of media, the military, and the corporate world. This won’t be accomplished by top-down government, even by well-meaning figures such as Corbyn or Sanders, who offer little fare in the realm of the anti-imperialist struggle worldwide.
Spiritual and psychological awakening among the public must be stoked by civil society in a grassroots manner: the cults of celebrity and social-media obsessions must be called out as superficial substitutes of an atomized culture, not a liberating digital space. Mindfulness and discernment must begin in early education, and a worthy model for personal reflection and social transformation is the Contemplative Mind Tree, which explores the means for actualization individually and collectively as well as the commonalities of seemingly different spiritual and cultural movements.
Necessarily, this will require disentangling from the virtual world of our screens, portals into an unreality which commodifies social alienation, fetishisizes technology, and relies on a grid powered by fossil fuels. This will mean using technology and money as means to the ends of living a meaningful life, not as ends in themselves. Nature must be defended, and regarded as having intrinsic value, not exploited for the false needs of global capitalism. Internationalism, solidarity, and reconciliation and cooperation between nations must be fostered in the public sphere via constructive debate and by progressive media dialogue.
We are a long way from this vision, and things will most likely get worse before they get better. In this period of transition, Westerners should be prodded to examine their priorities and basically accept a program of voluntary poverty regarding our extravagantly wasteful material possessions and fossil fuel use to help redistribute aid and resources to the Global South. If this were to happen, in the process, our lives would get qualitatively healthier, deeper, richer and fuller of meaning as the ethics of charity, reciprocity, and sustainability nourish our minds, bodies, and souls.
The longer we wait, the worse things are going to get, especially in terms of future effects from global warming. Westerners must overcome our apathy, renounce our privileged position in transnational capitalism, get out in the streets, use our power in numbers, and form a social movement centered on internationalism, radical democracy, gender and racial equality, and social and environmental justice.
William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, The World Financial Review, Gods & Radicals, and Counterpunch. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at williamhawes.wordpress.com
From Judith O’Grady: “Rather than ‘correctness’ we have to cultivate ‘mindfulness'”.
Referencing the story of Goldilocks we, in my family, refer to the making of some kind of people into not-people by some other kind of people (poor people into not-people by rich people, drop-outs into not-people by university attendees, women into not-people by men) as “they are just bears”. The bears do not actually own their possessions and so Goldilocks can freely eat and break them.
The first step in hating someone is to declare them to be a bear. Once they are bears you can discredit their opinions and beliefs, take away their possessions and homeland, refuse them the right of consent and enslave or rape them, believe that they do not feel pain as you would in their position…….
Historically, in general the ‘people’ have been those in power and the ‘bears’ have been the powerless. In my lifetime (I am old but not yet history), the Evil Bear-makers (those who think of themselves as ‘people’) have been the Conservatives, the Men in Charge, the Old Guard, the Privileged. Let us call them ‘The Exclusionists’; their mantra is that they and they alone have the right to govern, to possess, to be wealthy because they have always been the ones who have done it in the past, they alone have the necessary qualifications and experience to do these things, and that those things cannot effectively be done by Bears. They exclude everyone but those exactly like themselves from power and ownership.
My political self came of age in the era of civil rights demonstrations in the American South. The people (older than myself but not much older) who marched and died for those rights can, I believe, be typified as ‘The Inclusionists’. Their mantra was that there was commonality between white, young-adult, college student Northerners and black, older, share-cropper farmer Southerners; that they were all just people who should be able to vote, to go to school together, to be included in the same legal system. Those beliefs were idealistic and without great success (largely leading to covert replacing overt) but correct—- those peoples do have commonality.
Fast-forward to present day. Unlike the civil rights activists, many of whom were inclusive of not only all the people demonstrating with them but also the antagonists, current activists often demonize the people who are on ‘the same side’ but with differing beliefs or actions or goals as well as their antagonists. This is a terrible skew all down the line because then the torch-y white supremacists are primarily, but not the only wrong-headed bears. Their primal nature must be growling and hitting because they are not people like the good, non-violent, black-inclusive allies. So that dialogue changes from ‘you are wrong in your beliefs’ to ‘you are bad bears and must be outed, punished, shamed’. Even more troublesome is the othering of the people on the same side of the line who differ in belief. ‘Those black-wearing, face-hiding protestors use violence. They are bears’.
The Black Bloc have thought it over and have decided to stand between the defenceless and the aggressive, while also messing with Power-Holders’ structures on the route. Perhaps you feel that torching cop cars doesn’t advance your agenda, but they may also feel that wearing cute pink vagina hats doesn’t advance theirs. But you can agree on the bits of agenda that you agree on and both groups can act to stop hate speech. Or you can have an endless and useless argument about correct action, correct wording, correct stance. Every moment you spend fighting over minute ideology or word usage some fucktard is yelling about hatred unopposed.
But in reality none of any people are bears. The argument that any people are bears is specious because they are all people, just like anyone. That argument not only others them but others you as well. The people on the perceived moral high ground believe that they would not do whatever the non-people are doing— burning cop cars or fomenting hate. But it’s not that simple. To use a less-loaded example; most first-world people don’t eat insects or grubs (except escargot, the outlier). But it’s just culture; if you grew up in a culture in which rotten-log grubs were prized and eaten at festivals they would be like those chocolate eggs filled with sugary goo that only are available at Easter. If you grew up in a culture where women are sexualized and demeaned it would make perfect sense that they would be paid less than men.
Unless (here’s the catch) for some unprecedented reason you thought about it really hard. Out of the blue, you say to yourself, “Why IS it bad and embarrassing to have Dandelions in your yard? I like Dandelions.” That seems easy but the splash-back comes with culture. The across-the-street neighbour comes over to lecture you about “infecting the neighbourhood with Dandelions and driving down the housing values” (true story, actually) and suddenly you’re not discussing yellow Spring flowers but as a short traditionally-raised woman you’re having to mouth back to an elderly man who (20+ years in the military) is dripping with privilege and the implied threat of violence. It’s a lot harder than you envisioned.
Here’s another example. Back when I was firming up my beliefs by argument, I so so often heard the ‘family’ stance. Now, I believe in meeting violence with violence and have for quite some time. Right up there with the Prime Law for humans, ‘Everybeing has Free Will’, is the Prime Law for countries, ‘Don’t March Down Other People’s Streets’. Freedom Fighters (or terrorists, depending which side the speaker is on) have my respect. But many of the conventional Liberals saw violence as marking one out as ‘bad’ (infected with Dandelions) and described themselves as ‘non-violent’. But with a caveat, “If someone threatened my FAMILY then no holds barred!” But if some Evangelical started yelling at their teen-aged daughter on the bus about her hubcap-sized Pentacle, wouldn’t they want someone to step up for her even though she isn’t THEIR daughter? Of course.
People like to define themselves as Warriors, even when their lives do not routinely include violent confrontation. They’re waiting for the definitive moment when they can stand up in confrontation to the Blond Burly Guy in a flash uniform that mis-uses Runes. Not only will that likely not happen but if it did they would suddenly find that risking your life for belief is quite a bit more difficult than they envisioned.
What does happen, over and over, is that they don’t make a small gesture when they could. They know that if they confront privileged people irl, those people will use their privilege against them. They don’t step up to the trash-talking men and call them out; they don’t even go and sit with the clearly uncomfortable young woman. They collect their lunch and sit somewhere else. But, yo! With LOOKS OF SCORN.
Bringing up one example, I don’t shop at Walmart. I buy a lot of things at second-hand stores, so the argument (which I have heard numberless times) that I am making a privileged person’s choice is actually bullshit. When I had small children (that time of life when you need larger clothes every week) I mended my children’s play clothes and belonged to a clothes-exchange group of mothers. I remember the day when my friend heaved a sigh and said, “I can’t buy non-slave labour underwear anywhere and I really would like new underpants; I’m going to have to make an exception.”
Or the time that I mentioned in discussion that all of my family picked up trash wherever they were. One of the impassioned young men in the group turned on me and said that I was having no effect on the global trash load by that ineffectual action. “So you just let the trash lie?” I countered. He didn’t see my point. He was waiting until the Ocean Warrior sailed up to his land-locked door with a personalized invitation to board and until then he wasn’t putting any trash in the pockets of his natty coat, tyvm.
On the one hand, we are all faced with small decisions time after time, day after day. We must train ourselves to see the tiny crux and sometimes make a non-cultural choice. We have to live in the moment and in that moment see what is really happening. Rather than ‘correctness’ we have to cultivate ‘mindfulness’. We must look at that bear and see a person. What if I had been exposed to that wrong-minded culture in my childhood? What if my friendship group all decided on an action that I was uncomfortable with?
What would work? Screaming out,
“You are a POS Bear!!”
No. Somehow both antagonists must perceive what Right Action is:
“I am not a bear, nor are you.”
Again falling back on the small example, I had a brother-in-law. His mother had ‘never worked’ (ie held a paying job) and when he married he decreed that his wife would not ‘work’ either. She could grow and preserve a large vegetable garden, she could mind in-home day care toddlers, she could manage a difficult budget, but she could no longer be an executive secretary. After having two sons (“I want them to be tough”) he had a daughter. Suddenly, the world changed:
she must learn self-defence, she must play with blocks, she could not have a pretend kitchen for Christmass, she must excel at school (“I don’t want her dependant on some man for income!”). Why? The best of all reasons, love. Suddenly women were no longer bears; they could want for themselves what he wanted (“If she doesn’t want to wear the frilly dress she doesn’t have to!”)
On the other hand, violence should be met with violence. If you incite violence towards a wrong-thinking POS, then you should expect violence to be offered to yourself. If you step up and deny the threat of violence by force of will you may find that the Gods favour Right Action. If a person can stop a tank by force of will than a person can stop another person. Of course that confrontation may go badly, the aftermath of Right Action may not be happy, but someone’s point of view may change as a result. And, gradually, change will infect a culture. Like Dandelions, which are now ubiquitous because my province has banned poison herbicides. Like drunk driving, which has now become a crime rather than a juvenile expression of high spirits.
On the gripping hand, I am not a follower of that guy who mandated that we should love our enemies. But, unless we are being stalked by a coyote pack (happened to my son— he went back into the house without finishing his end-of-day cigarette), our enemies aren’t not-people either. We have some commonality and, standing on that island of commonality, we can struggle to explicate our disagreement. Not only should we give out what we want back, but if our cause/belief/reality is actually right then it must be able to be elucidated without the screaming of epithets. Mere explanation must be enough to carry the point. When I had small children to enculturate I had a rule about fighting,
“No hitting. No hitting back.”
So I never had to listen to endless sobbing stories about justification; all play stopped and everyone went off to think it over.
How might you carry your point without screaming and throwing plastic action figures?
is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).
Social justice obsession with a fundamentalist view of cultural appropriation is a white-knuckled grasp on the dying construct of Whiteness, insisting that symbols and people and cultures are closed, divinely-created systems, and that races and cultures should never be allowed mix.
From Rhyd Wildermuth
Three Tales of Red Laces
The old woman hit my leg with her cane. Hard.
I was strolling through the Turkish market along the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg, Berlin a decade ago. My partner and I were holding hands, getting drunk on the smells and sounds of the market. It was summer, everything felt luscious, the mundane world I’d known so far from that moment that the rap on my leg felt almost unreal.
“Ich hoffe das ist nicht nur Quatsch.“
I stopped, looked at her. She was old but energetic, flexible enough to bend down and grab my ankle with a strong grip. My German was almost good enough to understand what she’d said, but that didn’t make what she was doing seem any more sensible.
I turned to my boyfriend, panicked and helpless. “What’s going on and why is she grabbing me?”
He looked at me, looked at her, and then shrugged. “She wants to make sure your boot laces aren’t just nonsense.”
I looked at her again, sheepishly. “Nein…” I sputtered. Ich bin…Links.”
The old woman hit my leg with her cane again, releasing my ankle. “Gut,” she barked, smiled, and then told me to tie my boots better.
A few years later, I was back in Berlin again, this time with a different partner. It was Friday night, and we were getting ready to go to a club called Laboratory. For the uninitiated, Laboratory (formerly “Laboratory Faustus”) is a massive club located in the basement of a former coal power plant. The rest of the building houses Berlin’s most famous techno club, Berghain, but…we weren’t going to dance.
Watching me get ready, with a wry smile our host asked me if I needed a different pair of boot laces.
Naive me, so new and innocent in the world (I was 30), shrugged. “Why? Red’s not okay?”
He and my boyfriend both laughed at me. “I did not know you like fisting, but okay.”
“Wait–” I sputtered. “Red laces mean you’re a leftist.”
“Ja, on the street. But not in a sex club,” my German friend answered. “But all I have are yellow, so tonight you will be a piss pig.”
Last week in the bourgeois hipster enclave of Portland, Oregon, in the United States, “activists” recently became outraged at a Dr. Martens advertisement bearing hidden “racist” meanings. The advert in question features a pair of black boots with red&yellow plaid laces. According to “local anti-hate group activists,” the image of the boots are racist because, as the Southern Poverty Law Center informs us, red laces signify that the person is a fascist who has ‘shed blood’ for whiteness.
It is probably quite fair to say that those activists (or the very small minority of fascists who might wear red laces) don’t have any gay male friends, and have never met a European leftist.
Symbol & Sign
The fact that a basic symbol such as red boot laces can mean multiple things seems rather obvious. In fact, the very nature of a symbol allows it to contain multiple meanings, and those meanings can sometimes operate differently to people simultaneously experiencing the same symbol. A swastika on the foot of the Buddha or in Hopi art likely won’t mean the same thing to a holocaust survivor, for instance.
This isn’t just true of symbols, but also of words. In fact, playing with the tendency of humans to forget that a word can have multiple meanings is the core mechanism of most humor, especially in puns and other forms of word play. So, too, in literature, especially in poetry. In poetry, the various shades of meaning (connotations) of a word are what allows the poet to say much in very little, while the ‘double entendre’ in literature and drama plays specifically off the varying meanings of words, as seen in this line from T. H White’s The Once And Future King:
Gawaine and Gareth took turns with the fat ass, one of them whacking it while the other rode bareback
Most of us tend to grip towards one meaning of a symbol to the exclusion of all others, especially if we have little or no experience with other contexts for it. So unless you’re gay or familiar with gay sex jargon, you might not know that ‘bareback’ means sex without a condom. If you have not read much older literature you might have forgotten that ‘ass’ was a common word for donkey.
Sometimes we have trouble accepting the multiple meanings of a word or symbol. And sometimes, some of us insist that the word or symbol only has one meaning. This insistence, that a symbol only has one “true” meaning, is one of the core mechanisms of Christian Fundamentalism in the United States. It started with the command that the words of the Bible must be taken literally, rather than opened to dangerous ‘liberal’ interpretation. So when the authors of Genesis (God Himself, supposedly) stated that the world was created in six days, that’s literally what happened.
So it’s then quite amusing that ‘literally’ does not just mean ‘literal,’ but it also now means ‘figurative.’ I had the opportunity to witness an angry exchange by actual (literal!) fascists about a dictionary’s inclusion of that opposite definition (those are called ‘contranyms,’ by the way). “Cultural Marxists are ruining English,” one said. “They want to make women and men into their opposites and do the same for words.”
I interjected with a handful of older contranyms they’d probably forgotten:
I hope we can all literally weather the attempts of cultural marxists to literally weather away the meaning of our words. They’re literally cleaving the meaning from the words, when we know they should literally cleave together. They’re using these tactics as a literal screen for their attempts to literally screen out any of us who know that words only have one meaning.
Unfortunately, this sort of fundamentalist thinking about words and symbols is not limited to Christians or the far right. In fact, it has become one of the core doctrines in a lot of liberal ‘social justice’ thought, and not just when it comes to red boot laces.
To see this, let’s look at the term “cultural appropriation.” In its most common social justice usage, it’s come to mean theft (usually by white people) of indigenous, Black, or foreign spiritual or cultural forms. Having dreadlocks, native headdresses (like war bonnets), or calling yourself a shaman while also being white are all examples of its popular meaning, and in some cases eating ‘non-white’ food or becoming part of a ‘non-white’ religious tradition are also considered cultural appropriation.
The term cultural appropriation didn’t originally mean this, however, and only began to mean what it does now because of the explosion of internet social justice culture.
To uncover the original meaning, we need only to look at the word ‘appropriation.’ To appropriate something is literally to turn it into property somehow, and also to prevent others from using it. So, for example, when a government or a corporation takes common land or resources away from the public and makes it their own, they’ve appropriated it. Or when a museum takes indigenous cultural artifacts away from the people (including skeletons) and puts them in a museum, they’ve appropriated those cultural items.
Interestingly, when the term cultural appropriation was first used, it referred to something completely different: the way that poor and oppressed peoples took from the dominant culture in order to create vibrant subcultures. As Shuja Haidar explains:
It may come as some surprise on both sides of the battlefield, but the Left has not always understood “cultural appropriation” as a form of oppression. This connotation of the term has become ubiquitous in today’s social media-driven political climate. But when it first came into use, “cultural appropriation” denoted very nearly the opposite of its contemporary meaning.
The idea preceded the term, as a product of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. For thinkers like Stuart Hall, cultural appropriation described the way subcultures were created… But the precedents ran deeper. Indian food in England, Negro spirituals in America, bathhouses in 19th-century France — these were all contexts in which members of what we might now call “marginalized groups” used elements of a dominant culture in altered forms, generating their own communities that could hide in plain sight.
Without understanding or even acknowledging the other meanings of cultural appropriation (and specifically the word appropriation), all the arguments about what is ‘appropriative’ become fundamentalist. Basically, a white person doing, saying, wearing, eating, or believing anything that could be said to have belonged to peoples and cultures who are not white is cultural appropriation.
This might be the dominant way of understanding cultural appropriation, but it isn’t the only way. The term itself contains the key to a larger concept, that of turning things into property. When a corporation sells native headdresses, dream catchers, or African-indigenous art, they have turned cultural and spiritual forms into products for profit. This is the very same thing the capitalists do to land and natural resources like water or trees. When a person tries to sell people spiritual teachings or services that aren’t actually sold by the cultures that came up with them, they’ve turned something available for free into something you must pay for.
Similarly, most people who use the term ‘cultural appropriation’ are likewise unfamiliar with the meaning of the word ‘appropriation’ outside of American social justice jargon. It’s a great shame, because just like the social justice activists who saw the Dr. Marten advertisement and screamed ‘racist,’ without knowing that appropriation has a much larger meaning they fall into fundamentalist thinking. They miss out on a crucial understanding of what the entire term meant when it was first employed, as well as lacking the knowledge to understand precisely what is happening in cultural appropriation.
When a cultural or spiritual form is appropriated, it is literally turned into property. A company that sells native head-dresses has turned a cultural tradition into a product that can be bought and sold. The war bonnet in its original cultural context was not something that was bought and sold–it was made for specific purposes, gifted by the community to someone. Appropriating it, then, is turning something that was never a product into a product to be sold for a capitalists’s benefit.
So when the term cultural appropriation is used to refer to people who are not of African descent who have dreadlocks, or people who are not of Indian descent who revere Hindu deities, the original meaning of cultural appropriation is completely lost. There is no property involved in those examples: no one actually owns gods or hairstyles, at least until the capitalists find a way to steal them and sell them back to us.
White Purity & Woke Nationalism
So why do social justice activists insist that white people shouldn’t adopt the cultural and spiritual forms of people who are not white?
In some cases, there is a more complicated injustice as play. Take the example of dreadlocks. In the United States, Blacks were (and often still are) severely oppressed for wearing them. So whites to wear them in a culture that calls Blacks who wear them ‘dirty’ is absolutely obnoxious, and can seem cruel (even if whites who wear them have never discriminated against Blacks with dreads).
This same obnoxious turn occurs elsewhere. For instance, in many cities and towns within the United States, laws were passed in the last century forbidding gardens and urban farming. These laws specifically targeted immigrants who raised their own food in their yards, and made it very difficult for them to survive. In many of those exact same places, it has been white middle-class people (particularly women) who have gotten those laws overturned so that they can have urban chicken coops and gardens of their own.
Some have called that second example cultural appropriation. Similar to this, some social justice activists have stated that white people shouldn’t eat collard greens because they are traditional African-American food (though they were actually introduced to them by the British, who got them from the Greeks). And here’s where we can start to understand what is really wrong with the social justice view of culture appropriation: it’s white separatism.
In a podcast with Alkistic Dimech and Peter Grey, Gordon White used the term “Woke Nationalism” to describe this particular kind of purity politics. “It’s the ‘nothing on the plate can touch’ idea” he said, adding that it was not much different from white nationalism.
He’s right. White Nationalists build their fascist ideology around notions of purity and separation. Whites and Blacks should never mix, never love each other (and definitely never have children together). Whites must be kept separated from other bloodlines and other cultures, must keep their culture distinct and pure. Whites must not do non-white things, adopt non-white customs or modes of dress or beliefs.
This is unfortunately the same logic of the social justice fundamentalist view of cultural appropriation. But while a White Nationalist claims that doing non-white things is tainting the race, the social justice activist claims that doing non-white things is theft. The end result is the same: a pure, untainted, culturally-distinct white race. White Nationalism and Woke Nationalism want the same thing, just for different reasons.
When they look to cultural forms and ethnic groups with a fundamentalist perspective, social justice activists repeat the same racism of white nationalists. Whites must only do ‘white’ things, whether that is the fascist desire to purify the white race or the liberal command to avoid ‘cultural appropriation.’ Social justice obsession with white purity becomes indeed a sort of ‘woke’ nationalism, a white-knuckled grasp on the dying construct of Whiteness, insisting that symbols and people and cultures are closed, divinely-created systems, and that races and cultures should never be allowed mix.
Both make the same two mistakes: there is no such thing as a white race, and cultures have never been pure.
Ending the White Race
Whiteness isn’t actually a tribal or cultural form (no one was “white” 500 years ago) and thus there is no such thing as ‘white ancestry.’ Caucasian isn’t a tribal or cultural term either–it was invented by a race theorist at the end of the 18th century.
Whiteness is a very recent idea, and comes from the complete erasure of ancestral and cultural histories. To be ‘white’ is to no longer have a cultural history; in order to become fully white, European immigrants (especially from places still not fully considered white in Europe, like Ireland, Poland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) needed to forsake their specific cultural and ethnic backgrounds. By doing so, they gained access to white skin-privilege in the United States and Canada and became assimilated into ‘whiteness.’ All their history, their beliefs, traditions, modes of dress and food and their languages were bleached out of them, but in return they gained a new settler-colonial identity which granted them a little more access to wealth and security.
We need to go a little farther here, though, because there is actually no such thing as ‘ancestrally-French’ or ‘ancestrally-German.’ Neither of those places actually existed three hundred years ago. Instead, one might have been ancestrally-Breton or ancestrally-Bavarian. Go back a little further and those ancestral connections existed on the level of village or countryside, not ethnic people-groups.
Even more fascinating, however, is that there were no pure or pristine cultures back then, either.
People moved, and moved a lot. They traded, they inter-married, their cultural and religious forms becoming mixed in precisely the way that terrifies both social justice activists and white nationalists. Vikings “culturally appropriated” by making clothing with Islamic verse on them. Celts “culturally appropriated” Egyptian and Greek deities in what is now London, 2000 years ago. Sephardic Jews and Moorish Muslims and Iberian pagans mixed their cultures and languages fluidly in Al Andalus. Semitic Phoenicians traded as far up to Cornwall, littering the Atlantic coasts of Europe with their artifacts.
Cultural exchange is not only an ancient thing, but it is unavoidable. When peoples come into contact with each other, they trade, they talk, they borrow, they teach and mimic each other. Likewise, racial purity is impossible–people have an odd tendency to want to sleep with each other, regardless of where they’re from.
That both social justice activists and white nationalists have trouble understanding this comes from the very same mechanism by which social justice activists saw red boot laces on an advertisement and screamed ‘racism.’ Both are certain that ‘whiteness’ means something, and both insist that whites cannot be anything else but what they’ve decided they are.
To get out of this mess isn’t easy, but it’s possible.
First, we must release our fundamentalist death grip on symbols and meaning, and especially our white-knuckled grasp on ‘whiteness.’ To do so, we’ll need to look at our past with a different perspective, rejecting the fundamentalist narratives of both white nationalism and ‘woke’ nationalism.
Because though whites have lost their ancestral connection, European spiritual and cultural forms didn’t just disappear because Americans forgot them. Here where I now live in Bretagne, spiritual and magical traditions still exist–there’s no need for anyone here to hire a plastic shaman or join an online witch course to learn about Ankou, the Korrigan, or any of the other spirits and gods of their land–they can just ask their grandparents. The same is true in many parts of Europe, especially in non-urban areas.
Reconnecting to cultural and ancestral traditions will require giving up something, though. Because whiteness is not just built upon the erasure of ethnic and cultural history, but also upon the lie that whites are enlightened, progressive, and ‘modern’ while all the rest of the world (now and in the past) was primitive, unenlightened, superstitious, and stupid.
Here, again, liberal social justice ideas actually get in the way of dismantling whiteness by painting the current regime of rights and technology as more enlightened than anything that existed before. Whiteness itself is founded upon this idea, the certainty that we know the true meaning of things. That the order of the world that came about with whiteness is the best one, that all other ways of being are wrong. In this way, even people who are not white but who hold on to this lie are making sure whiteness never ends.
And finally, we must talk about cultural appropriation in a way that actually fights those who are turning what belongs to everyone into property. The pharmaceutical companies and petty capitalists that patent ancient medicines, the universities that steal indigenous artifacts for ‘research,’ the media conglomerates who sell us fictive versions of our own history, all the plastic shamans and spiritual teachers who sell us knowledge that was once free, and anyone who would try to police our cultural, spiritual, and social expressions, be they white nationalists or ‘woke’ nationalists–they are the ones stealing meaning from the world.
Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.
“Catharsis politics isn’t just unhelpful. It’s actively destructive.”
Political critique from Sophia Burns
This summer, my lover and I sat under a tree at Gay Pride. Behind us, we heard a speaker from the Dyke March stage.
She talked about privilege – how the experience of having cisgender privilege, white privilege, and abled privilege gives people “faulty brain wiring,” making its bearers biologically dangerous to people of color, disabled people, and trans people. She declared that dykes ought to stand for justice – and the way to do that is to “sit with our discomfort,” because “fixing our brain wiring” is each individual’s responsibility. She rounded it out by declaring her own marginalized identity as a dyke, affirming her pride and calling for unspecified “revolutionary social justice reforms.”
Meanwhile, my lover told me about an acquaintance of hers who makes it to every big protest downtown. This person always joins the Black Bloc, always picks a fight with the cops, always needlessly endangers not only themselves, but also their friends. Being in the middle of a fight makes them feel in the middle of the anti-fascist movement.
The US has no mass revolutionary Left. Those of us who want to build one have to push against not only external opposition from the government and capitalism, but also the obstacles that we have imposed on ourselves. While the social justice speaker and the reckless antifa went about it in different ways, ultimately both made the same mistake: they treated leftism as a method of individual catharsis, not collective power. Catharsis politics is one of the central self-limiting features of the current Left.
Each of these examples illustrates a different flavor of catharsis politics. Let’s call one of them affirmation catharsis and the other combat catharsis.
When liberals insist that the point of protest is to “have your voice be heard,” they are actually describing the fascist mode of political participation. To be satisfied with “feeling heard” in and of itself, as the goal of political activity, without pointing that expression toward building real material power, is to be a contented fascist subject.
The details of the self-images they project aren’t very similar. However, that’s almost beside the point, since both do reduce politics to the projection of a self-image. It’s a way they express the kind of person they want to be. They do so in public, with an audience, because that’s how they get their peers’ validation. As a rule, neither has a coherent strategy for social change. Affirmation catharsis celebrates fabulousness while combat catharsis tries for militant cool, but at the root they’re variations on the same individualistic theme.
There’s a material reason for that. After all, what are the class interests of most catharsis politics practitioners? Aspiring non-profit managers, academics, and media figures lean towards affirmation catharsis because they must out-compete each other for a limited quantity of specialized jobs and public attention. Student radicals, who believe in revolution but lack connections with working-class communities, want to “do something real” and find their outlet in combat catharsis.
For the first time in decades, a mass US Left is trying to be born. The two strands of catharsis politics are strangling it.
The culture of anti-oppression politics lends itself to the creation and maintenance of insular activist circles. A so-called “radical community” — consisting of collective houses, activist spaces, book-fairs, etc. — premised on anti-oppression politics fashions itself as a refuge from the oppressive relations and interactions of the outside world. This notion of “community”, along with anti-oppression politics’ intense focus on individual and micro personal interactions, disciplined by “call-outs” and privilege checking, allows for the politicization of a range of trivial lifestyle choices. This leads to a bizarre process in which everything from bicycles to gardens to knitting are accepted as radical activity.
But what’s actually wrong with catharsis? Shouldn’t radicals express who we are and who we want to be? Why not celebrate our survival in a hostile society and affirm our values? Isn’t it a way to center the most marginalized, fight oppression, and practice revolutionary self-love?
Stafford Beer, who helped developed cybernetics (the study of complex systems), had a saying: “The purpose of a system is what it does.” Whether it’s a computer program, a government agency, or whatever else, what something was originally intended to do doesn’t matter. To understand something, you can’t write off “side effects” and “unintended consequences.” You have to take its effects as a whole. Treat a thing as it actually is, not as what it was originally meant to be. When examining catharsis politics (and political ideas in general), remember this.
Catharsis politics is what it is in practice, not what it theoretically could be. And in practice, decades of “anti-oppression” affirmation catharsis and affinity-group combat catharsis have completely failed. They haven’t grown a meaningful revolutionary movement in the US. They’ve just created an insular and hostile subculture that doesn’t win anything much deeper than corporate re-branding or the cancellation of individual Nazi rallies.
From Jon Stewart on down, catharsis politics means substituting the feeling of mass politics for the reality. Affirmation catharsis allows progressive-minded individuals to scratch the political itch merely by clicking “share.” Further, it replaces work towards the liberation of the oppressed with support for the media presence and careers of aspiring professional activists who can claim a marginalized background. It isn’t just unhelpful. It actively disrupts revolutionary work by channeling people away from the kind of organizing that builds collective power. Instead, it offers a basically passive, consumerist approach to politics. Why do you think there’s always talk of “leadership” from people who don’t do any mass work, or any politics at all that doesn’t involve self-promotion? To uplift someone’s voice, all you have to do is sit there and listen. No need to build revolutionary institutions that can actually get people free. At the end of the day, you end up with de-politicized politics, where “doing the work” means visibly consuming “progressive” media, and (in the words of the popular site Everyday Feminism) radical activism means you “publish, reblog, or share” articles to “signal-boost the voices of others.”
Conversely, combat catharsis puts real-world action front and center. But, it does so in a way that falls into the same individualism as affirmation catharsis. It takes the adrenaline-filled moment of street confrontation and substitutes that for revolutionary politics itself. Mass work, as with affirmation catharsis, gets derided or ignored. Small affinity groups replace participatory-democratic institutions. The fetish for violence (rather than the willingness to use force only when it strategically makes sense – and it often doesn’t) flows from a particular leftist flavor of patriarchy. “Radical” and “publicly confrontational” get collapsed into one, and the necessary, everyday work of maintaining and reproducing basic social existence usually falls to activist women. The larger division of labor that underpins capitalism’s gender system finds itself re-created by a nominally anti-capitalist scene.
And, above all, combat catharsis does not engage positively with anyone who doesn’t already share its values. The defining image is an individual activist trying to be heroic. It rarely leads to the growth of roots in working-class communities or further collective action. After all, the work of building alternative institutions of people’s power is slow, unsexy, and patient. It rarely has the fireworks of a fistfight with Proud Boys. It’s about cultivating relationships, listening, organizing resources, and serving the people – in short, much of it is work that’s considered feminine. While this approach to revolutionary politics does involve confrontation when confrontation makes sense, it’s never for its own sake. Strategically speaking, confrontation and construction complement each other. Without its counterpart, each will degenerate. Combat catharsis is what happens when confrontation is severed from mutual aid, service, and community-oriented mass work. Combat catharsis will never change the world. It will always, however, offer instant gratification and radical chic.
Activist networking is what might be called lifestyle activism…These individuals are not particularly concerned with effectiveness, because for then it is more of a hobby, an identity, or a “safe space” for like-minded people to discuss common interests without having to engage with working class people with their warts and all.
In both cases, individual activists do not look beyond themselves. They do the minimum to feel like good people in the short term, but it never leads to more. There’s no coherent analysis of how society works, no goal for how it should be different, and no strategy for how to get there. The purpose of a system is what it does. Catharsis politics does not move us towards liberation.
Now, from the perspective of neoliberal politicians and corporate investors, that’s just fine. The Left focuses on itself and the powerful are comfortably unthreatened. But from the point of view of the working class – and that probably includes you – it’s poison. Politics isn’t made of individuals. It’s made of classes. Political change doesn’t come from feeling individually validated. It comes from collective action and organization within the working class. That means creating new institutions that meet our needs and defend against oppression.
Right now, there are plenty of opportunities for catharsis politics. But they aren’t compatible with genuine revolutionary organizing. If you ignore any strategy that reaches beyond yourself, you won’t end up with collective power. And inasmuch as it allows people to satisfy their desire to be political without actually doing much, catharsis politics isn’t just unhelpful. It’s actively destructive.
To defeat Trump and the neo-Confederates we have to develop a strategic “Build and Fight; Fight and Build” program. This program must address the imperative need to build economic and political power from the ground up – amongst workers, the underemployed, unemployed and structurally unemployable on the community, county, state and national levels.
Both dimensions of our Build and Fight program we believe must have offensive and defensive dimensions to them.
Very little of the US Left practices the strategy of institution-building. Most of the groups that do only formed within the last few years. However, one of the few that began that work decades ago – Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi (which spun off from the revolutionary Black nationalist Malcolm X Grassroots Movement) – has developed an impressive network of community farms, co-ops, cultural institutions, and direct-democratic People’s Assemblies. Three decades of institution-building have made them a near-hegemonic force in Jackson, MS’s working-class, Black majority. This year, for the second time, a member of Cooperation Jackson (Chokwe Antar Lumumba, son of the deceased mayor and Cooperation Jackson member Chokwe Lumumba) was elected mayor. More recently, Philly Socialists – a city-level group founded by 2 people only 6 years ago – currently has a triple-digit membership with hundreds more active in its tenants’ union, food garden, ESL classes, and other programs.
The strategy is called Dual Power (because it aims to create a second political power structure, in opposition to the capitalist one) or base-building (because it emphasizes working towards a broad base of community support and involvement). It gets consistent, concrete results. And right now, that can’t be said of most of the US Left.
Revolutionaries need patience and humility. Feeling validated is fine, but it’s not political. If anyone says otherwise, they’re selling you something. Catharsis politics has been tried for many years. It isn’t working. So let’s acknowledge that, move on, and leave the social justice subculture behind. If we ever want liberation, the Left must start the protracted work of building institutions instead.
Sophia Burns is a communist and devotional polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her financially on Patreon.
This is the second part of Wolves In the Interregnum, a series on Jack Donovan, Paul Waggener, and the Wolves of Vinland.
Author’s note:In my previous essay, I focused extensively on the aesthetic on Jack Donovan and the Wolves of Vinland, while heavily critiquing the moralistic reactions against that aesthetic. For some, this may no doubt seem unfair, if not outright antagonistic to the very tendencies which attempt to resist fascist movements. Why criticize American social justice and bourgeois/liberal feminism in an essay about a rising fascist threat?
The reason for such an apparent inversion will be made quite clear as we look at how the Wolves and others have rather brilliantly occupied the anti-modern and anti-globalisation politics abandoned by ‘The Left.’
Another World Was Possible…
In the last part of the 1990’s and the first few years of the 21st century, massive manifestations filled the streets of major cities of the world. These protests were part of what was called the anti-globalisation or alter-mondialiste movement, and had the astounding ability to unite people across wide spectrums of political orientation into a common struggle. Environmentalists, immigrants, labor unions, indigenous-rights groups, and even many people traditionally seen as right-wing arrived in major cities throughout the world to fight against governments, multi-national corporations, and global finance organisations.
While it is impossible to distill the myriad of political goals of the protesters, we can more easily summarize the changes in international governance, political distribution, and the regulations of global capital against which they protested.
Brokered by nations and corporate leaders, international trade agreements such as NAFTA and the GATT reduced the power of local governments, communities, and unions over the economic, environmental, and cultural activities of the people which composed or were supported by them. Meanwhile, large international monetary orgaisations like the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank used economic crises to force austerity and privatization policies upon nations in the global south, effectively nullifying the popular will of the people through the use of weaponized debt.
All of this was happening at once, all over the world, and the consequences have been myriad. Environmental degradation in South America and Africa, mass suicides of farmers in India, famines, explosive immigration from poorer countries to richer ones, collapses of entire nations, the reduction of diversity in agriculture and the extinction of species, the weakening of trade and labor unions throughout the world, and the destruction of countless communities as local industries were destroyed and factories shut down….all of this is just a part of what the anti-globalisation movement fought against.
Partially due to the all-too conveniently-timed ‘war on terror’ and systematic counter-revolutionary actions, the mass mobilizations of the anti-globalisation movement are long-gone, and few of the critiques remain in the political platforms of any leftist or liberal movement in the United States or the United Kingdom.
However, the damage done did not simply disappear when there was no movement to fight it, and much of the current political turmoil in which we find ourselves now is a consequence both of globalisation and the left’s abandonment of that fight. The rise of fascist, Islamist and nationalist movements, acceleration of climate change, increasing poverty, mass displacement, and countless other crises can be linked to the spread of global capital. The closure of factories, the shift of investment from manufacturing to finance and internet technology, and the obliteration of local economies happened just as the protesters feared, but as with much else, rage against this destruction resurfaced as part of the platform of the fascist right, as well as featuring heavily in the political campaign of Donald Trump and the exit of the UK from the European Union (Brexit).
Just as with other elements of leftist abandonment, the political platforms of the anti-globalisation movement didn’t go away: they are now being wielded towards new goals by fascist, nationalist, and authoritarian movements against which antifascists now find themselves in a losing battle.
One of those groups? The Wolves of Vinland.
As with their aesthetic, The Wolves present an anti-modern ideology, one that rejects Empire (or in Donovan’s words, “The Empire of Nothing”) in favor of societies formed around tribal affinities and self-selection. Crucial to such a transition is the rejection of the hegemonic rule of Liberal Democracy not just over individual and group actions, but also over self-perception and our own modes of thought. As the manifesto of Operation Werewolf puts it:
“It is not a political statement, but a bloody fist shaken in the face of all institutions of control- a furious bite to the hands that seek to leash or enslave. It is not right or left, but free of these shackles of modern dualistic thinking- it operates under the assumption that the Kings of this world have become so through the forked tongue of finance and fear, and it rejects their offerings. The warriors who make up Operation Werewolf know that the true heroes are those who are self made, physically and mentally strong, free thinkers and free doers who are both untamed and unrepentant.”
While Waggener gives very little time to political analysis, Jack Donovan does much more (it was he, after all, who was invited to a European New Right think tank). Operation Werewolf functions primarily as the self-improvement wing of The Wolves, while Donovan’s writing focuses much more on political theory. Consider Donovan’s response during a Reddit ‘ask me anything’ to a question regarding why tribalism has “a bad rap”:
“The anti-tribalist/anti-racist hysteria promoted by the progressive media is too convenient for wealthy elites. They are, for the most part, protected from the negative consequences of the “melting pot.” The wealthy can afford security, and they can afford to live wherever they like, and they can afford to send their children to whatever schools they prefer. The representatives from other groups that they and their families interact with most are often going to be very well socialized or very successful. It’s the lower and lower middle class proles who are forced, whether they like it or not, to interact with groups of people who have radically different values or cultures.
Tribalism is inconvenient for wealthy globalists. To begin with, it creates instability that can threaten their investments. They can also make more money when they are free to outsource labor, move a factory, or import goods made in places with a lower standard of living.
If people are convinced that they are “world citizens” and shouldn’t expect any kind of local or national loyalty, globalist elites won’t have to be confronted with any sort of crisis of conscience when they sell out their neighbors and countrymen.”
Any reader who was politically-active during the WTO protests or any of the other manifestations comprising the anti-globalisation movement will recognize much of this rhetoric. For The Wolves, Empire is almost identical to what (anarchists) Hardt and Negri outlined in their books, as well as what most autonomous Marxists, post-colonialists, many Green Anarchists, and anti-civ theorists criticize: Liberal (Capitalist) Democratic hegemony. But also, something is obviously off, racialized, about their rhetoric.
Immigrants As Victims, Immigrants As Weapons
First, let us acknowledge the core problem which Donovan cites in his response: the mobility of global capitalism has made it impossible for local politicians and small communities to fight capitalist policies. No matter how strong the local resistance to the closing of a factory in the rust belt of the United States is, as long as the owner of that factory can re-invest their capital in another market, local protest—even violent protest–is useless. As long as cheaper labor can be found elsewhere, and provided no punitive tariffs on re-imporation are levied by governments, it will always be a good business decision for a corporation to move its production to a cheaper labor market. Because of the success of capitalist globalisation, no local political movement can effectively exert control over global capital.
Simultaneously, so-called ‘Free Trade’ agreements destroy the local economies outside the United States even more than within. The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed into law in 1994, ravaged the economy of Mexico, leading to massive spikes in immigration (‘legal’ and otherwise) to the United States. For instance, in 1990, the amount of Mexican nationals living in the United states was 4.3 million; in 2000 on account of Liberal capitalist policies, that number more than doubled to 9.17 million.
It is impossible to understate the effect that adding so many more workers into the United States had both on wages and on unions, as well as the ‘cultural’ disruption 5 million more people (in a country of 280 million) would represent. Similar changes occurred in Europe as well.
Here, though, we must make a distinction between the far-right analysis of such events, the liberal one, and the (currently abandoned) leftist understanding. While the right often sees the immigrants themselves as the problem, a liberal sees only the anti-immigrant racism of the people (white, Black, or otherwise) in the communities into which they migrate as the problem. Both focus entirely on the matter of the immigrants themselves, rather than the forces which cause people to become immigrants in the first place.
From a Marxist view, immigrants are doubly-exploited people who function both as victim of oppression and political tool for the capitalist. Liberal economic policies (and foreign military actions) destroy the economies of other nations. Those people make the obviously difficult yet economically-inevitable decision to leave their countries to find work elsewhere. Yet when they arrive, they then function as a ‘reserve labor force’ to drive down wages in the country to which they moved, breaking the power of organized labor.
Racial tensions greatly help this process. When Black or white workers in the United States begin losing jobs or finding their wages stagnating, they accurately note a relationship between their deteriorating economic conditions and the sudden influx of immigrants. However, they miss the larger processes which entrap both the immigrants and themselves, and they can be somewhat forgiven for this failure: relentless media hype about illegal immigration, conservative politicians happy to employ racial fears for votes, and liberal politicians eager to dismiss white workers’ complaints as anti-progressive or downright stupid, all helped to insure neither the immigrants nor the workers united against the primary cause of their common suffering.
To understand how this process works, consider the plight of Russian Jewish immigrants fleeing violence to Israel, where they are then given land in occupied territories and used by the Israeli government as a buffer against Palestinian rage. Or, further back, Europeans fleeing Capitalist enclosure of land to America, then given “free” land in return for helping to kill Native Americans. In both cases, the initial displacement which victimized the people who became immigrants was later wielded to turn the immigrants themselves into weapons of Capital.
None of the current political movements accurately address quite what is happening. Unfortunately, the social justice framework is particularly shallow here: it sides with immigrants not on economic grounds, but on the field of identity and oppression (precisely as the far right does, but in inverse). While immigrants absolutely face racist oppression, the social justice political strategy ignores that this oppression is a continuation of their economic exploitation, rather than a mere moral issue. The economic exploitation of immigrants is bound-up in the same capitalist machinations which deteriorate the economic conditions of the working-class whites which Social Justice activists see as the alpha-oppressor. So while the Left stopped addressing the economic suffering of whites as the ‘working class’ (in favor of focusing on social oppression), their economic suffering continues regardless, making them a ripe field for harvesting by far-right ideologues like Donovan.
Here we can see that, as in so much else of his writing, Donovan is not really wrong in his analysis. The ‘wealthy elites’ to whom he refers do not encounter the refugees and immigrants displaced by their policies or for their profit. None of the politicians who voted for NAFTA, none of the executives of multi-national corporations, and none of the finance brokers of large investment banks experience the direct effects of their decisions, cultural or otherwise. Neither, though, will the investors who reap dividends from those moves, nor will many of the urban liberal bourgeoisie (be they tech workers or hipster business owners) even encounter the immigrants or the disgruntled working-class who directly experience these shocks except as the house-cleaners, construction workers, janitors, or the countless other manual servants who support their lifestyles.
Donovan is not really wrong, but he is also not really right, either. The ‘wealthy elites’ against which he warns benefit both from anti-racism and racism alike. “Elite” (Bourgeois) liberals and conservatives both manipulate the poor beneath them; the Capitalist class wields racist rhetoric to manipulate poor whites against Blacks and immigrants at the very same time that it wields identity politics against those whites. With both hands, the capitalists ensure those upon whom the entire system is built never unite against them.
Conservative-inspired white violence against immigrants ensures that those immigrants remain passive and compliant victims of global capital; Liberal social justice identity politics makes sure that the circumstances and primary cause of that violence is seen not as a result of capitalist policies, but as a result of the white (cis/able-bodied/hetero/male) it identifies as alpha-oppressor. It is a game in which capitalists have bet on both teams, and while the Left stands in the stadium slack-jawed, Donovan has been picking their pockets.
The Violence of the Gilded Age
It is here where we can begin to see that the threat the Wolves poses to antifascists is not what any of his critics think. It is not his virulent brand of misogyny, nor his intoxicating aesthetic, nor even his increasing influence and popularity. Rather, it’s that he’s beating the Left at their own politics, occupying ideological and intellectual territory they forgot they even once possessed, and building a racialized movement with the tools we left behind.
Nowhere is this best seen than in the speech he gave at Schollenrode to a New Right think-tank in February. The 20 minute presentation, called “Violence is Golden,” outlines his primary critique of Liberal Democracy and the modern world.
“We all live by the sword. Every law is a shaking sword, a glock at close range, a hungry pair of handcuffs. Every hate speech law, every anti-discrimination law, every tax that extorts the money you earned and gives it to someone you would never willingly help, who may even hate you, is backed by the threat of violence. IThe people who say they want safe spaces and peace and love will send men with guns to threaten to kill you if you do not do what you want.”
“The prevailing narrative of the Empire of Nothing—the phrase I use to describe the network of governments …is that ‘violence is evil, violence is something others do, violence something that outsiders do, something that criminals and outlaws and sick people do, violence is a disease some kind of affliction that can be cured…they believe it is a symptom of ‘toxic masculinity.’
…old rulers were proud of what they won.and defended using violence…those that give names in modern democratic states obscure that violence…
State violence is euphemized and obscured by terms like law enforcement when a criminal shoots someone its violence, when the police shoot someone its law enforcement.
Democratic violence must be presented as a reluctant, nurturing correction When acts of violence are morally sterilized in this way, good, modern civilized people can absolve themselves of the reality that the laws and regulations they depend on are obeyed only because wielding tasers tears gas batons and firearms. When you accept and internalize this narrative that violence is evil done only by outlwasd what the state does is something else, you wash the blood from your hands. It is easy to convince yourself that you live nonviolently, that you have evolved beyond violence.”
If many of these statements sound in any way familiar, they should. They are the same arguments once used by the Black Panthers, by indigenous resistance movements, by insurrectionist anarchists, by autonomous Marxists, and by every other leftist critic of Liberal Democratic hegemony in the 20th century. They are the core analysis of state violence inherent in anti-civilationist critics and the essential thrust of Ward Churchill’s deconstruction of liberal ‘nonviolence.’ You can find variations of the same statements in the work of European critical theorists like Zizek and Badiou, as well as in my own writing. In fact, last year I wrote critiques both of the way social justice relies on state violence to enforce hate crime legislation as well as how we help Liberal Democracy obscure the violence it commits on our behalf.
Whether or not Jack Donovan reached this analysis through exposure and study of leftist revolutionary theorists or came upon it through his own path, the fact remains that he wields it better than what passes for the Left in the United States. Mass movements such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy, and the mobilizations against Trump and white supremacy expend extraordinary effort to avoid direct criticism of Liberal Democracy, contorting themselves into almost absurd positions. A coalition of activists involved in Black Lives Matter, for instance, produced a platform that skirted completely the connection between the police and liberal democratic violence, offering police reform as their most radical position. Even the manifestations against white nationalists and alt-right groups by antifascist coalitions refuse to make the connection between the police who protect the fascists and the urban ‘progressive’ social order which prosecutes hate crimes on their behalf.
While anti-fascists heavily rely on ‘no-platforming, this complete leftist abandonment of revolutionary attacks against Liberal Democracy actually gives the far-right their platform. It is as if Leftists built a stage, set up a mic and speakers, and brought in a massive audience, but while they became distracted by Liberal Democratic crises (the war on terror, the 2016 presidential elections) and glittering distractions (gay marriage, identity politics), men like Donovan stumbled upon the script and the live mic and began improvising before an eager crowd.
Because while Jack Donovan and the other theorists of the New/Fascist Right are deeply intelligent, their ideas are completely derivative. They are experts at salvage and refurbishment, but aren’t actually able to create anything new. In this way, they are hardly much different from the Nazis who borrowed endlessly from whatever mythic past they could find, repurposing Leftist critiques and even Liberal Democracy itself, into a deadly configuration.
The Gods Are What Has Failed To Become of Us
Most important of the Wolves’ work—and least understood by their critics, is their reclamation of a mythic, anti-modern spirituality in the form of Heathenism. Antifascists, liberals, and conservatives alike tend dismiss these aspects as mere oddity or primitivist nonsense, missing that it is from there they derive their true power.
It is useful here to remember first that before Jack Donovan was a hyper-masculinist Heathen, he was Jack Malabranche, a Satanist who spent much of his time in endless troll-sessions with trans women on internet sites. Those who remember him from that time recount a completely different man, one so insecure with his masculinity and beliefs that he could become enraged at the slightest friendly jab about his figure or perceived intelligence.
In his Heathen incarnation, Donovan finally found a milieu in which he could operate, a mythic system more easily-accessed, and something that Left-Hand path work couldn’t offer: a framework of community. Unlike most Pagan, Witch, and Magician paths, Heathenry in the United States emphasizes familial and friendship bonds, a complete moral code of tribe-based solidarity, and a pre-existing masculinist aesthetic into which even the most awkward, socially-inept man can find a sense that he is something more than just a capitalist failure.
Like the rest of his ideas, Donovan’s Heathenry is largely derivative. The tattoos on his chest are standard: the Black Sun, Icelandic staves: nothing every Black Metal-loving suburban kid doesn’t get by the time he’s 19. His occasional quotations of the Eddas or recounting of Odinic tales to illustrate a point are almost awkward to read: they have a greeting-card quality to them, rather than of someone actually initiated into Odinic mysteries.
Paul Waggener and Operation Werewolf are the more dominant influence. Waggener’s esoteric work, however, is more aesthetics than serious magic—for instance, Vakandibok—a Taufr of Awakening, is frankly not much different in scope than the useless drivel that comes out of major pulp-occult publishers like Llewellyn. However, aesthetically it is significantly different: darker, more primitive, and with significantly less New Age ‘bullshit.’ It also offers a cultural aesthetic far less worshipful of hyper-capitalist modernity than most of what non-racialized Paganism offers.
Ultimately, however, the “ancient” spirituality of the Wolves is a political aesthetic. Here we must remember: it’s too easy to dismiss the aesthetic of romanticist primitivism used by groups like the Wolves of Vinland as “mere” aesthetic, as if aethestic had no power. Vikings, European tribalism, return to simpler and more embodied ways of relating to the world, unsubstantiated and patently false notions of racially-pure pasts cannot be dismissed merely because they are aesthetics divorced from historical fact. So, too, the pretensions of modern life, the religious assurances that technological progress, endless growth, and hyper-consumerism have brought peace and equality are likewise mere aesthetic with no reference to truth. Its falsehood is irrelevant to the truth it creates.
What the Wolves are creating through their spiritual aesthetic is of course not a return to ancient ways of being, but an aesthetic of ancient return against a wholly-alienating capitalist, modern present. Whether they believe themselves to be returning or not is not the point; only that, given enough power, the return will happen in their (false yet now-true) ancient way.
Baudrillard’s point that it is impossible to rob a bank in an ‘inauthentic’ way is important here. You cannot simulate a hold-up: regardless of whether you really mean the gun in your hand, you were honest in your written note to the teller, deeply and truly meant to kill hostages if the money were not delivered, or truthfully meant to return the money afterward, the bank is robbed regardless. Authenticity and faithfulness to the original do not matter: everything is always reproduction of an unapproachable and missing original.
Against The Modern World
Thus, whether or not the Wolves are faithfully copying ancient Germanic religion and culture is a question only a liberal (themselves forgetting that Democracy is likewise inauthentic) might find relevant. For the rest of us, the primitive return to Odinic rites and sacred warrior brotherhoods that the Wolves propose must be seen as a wholly political aesthetic akin to the Marxist creation of the proletariat or the Nazi fabrication of the volk, as well as the social justice creation of the oppression identity. Nation, Race, Gender, and Religion are all likewise political aesthetics whose power is undeniable.
The question thus isn’t whether or not the primitive, Heathen aesthetic of the Wolves is true, but why it has power. Here is where we see yet again another deep failure of the Left, a great abandonment of territory occurring at precisely the same time as the Left largely abandoned anti-globalisation. The globalist (neo-liberal, or actually just Liberal) political transformations that have occurred in the last two decades have done for societies now what Marx noted was accomplished by the bourgeoisie in the 19th century:
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”
Alienation of the body, destruction of local cultures and communities, destruction of religious systems and moral frameworks around which people cohered: these are all the effects of capital’s globalized spread in the name of civilization:
“It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”
Whilst Marx and Engels argued that such transformations were inevitable and would lead to worldwide class revolt, the Messianic promise never manifested. The industrialisation of work under the religious banner of modernity nevertheless succeeded in disrupting every social relation, destroying every cultural form which stood in its way (indigenous, ancient, or otherwise).
The recent rise of new-old religious and cultural forms (such as the Wolves’ anti-modern Heathenry), then, is a political reaction to global capital, regardless of whether or not they identify it as such. There is nothing actually fascist about such reactions; the Left mistakes anti-modernism as fascist only because it has drank the bloody offerings at Capitalism’s altars of progress. Walter Benjamin noted this in his criticisms of the bourgeois-left political formulations in Europe against which the Surrealists fought, especially their dogmatic belief in the conquest of nature and the march of history:
“Marx said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps things are very different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which the human race travelling in the train applies the emergency brake.”
The world of global capital means more environmental, social, and cultural destruction in the name of progress, modernity, and civilization; thus an anti-modern political aesthetic such as what the Wolves utilize is essentially a reaction to capitalism. But it is not quite an anti-capitalist politics, or isn’t any longer now that these critiques are abandoned by the overly-credulous and hyper-modern Left.
These critiques originate in anarchist, socialist, post-colonialist, and anti-imperialist thought, and were once a primary feature of mass movements against global capital. Anti-imperialism, particularly in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America has always made as one of their foundational critiques the overthrow of French, American, and Anglo attempts to ‘civilize’ the conquered natives. Marxist and Anarchist theories, stripped of their European exceptionalism, transformed alchemically into autonomous movements embracing traditional and indigenous ways of being, and where they became strong enough to influence or transform government (as in Bolivia), their aesthetics were ultimately anti-modern (as for instance Evo Morale’s enshrinement of Pachu Mama as an entity with legal rights).
As with the questions of gender, sexuality, and bodily autonomy mentioned in the previous essay, the Wolves and other fascist groups have merely squatted aesthetic political territory ceded by the Left.
Here, much more than elsewhere, American Leftists deserve the fiercest of criticisms. A peculiar sort of American urban exceptionalism has arisen which belittles those who do not partake in bourgeois hipsterism. Those who are not part of urban realities, who do not know (or care) about the latest social media frenzy, who experience the modern as relentless alienation and are slow to be educated into the latest pronoun-shifts or poly-bi-non-pan sexualities are ultimately written-off as reactionaries, just as the political cries of those whose material existence has been shattered by global capitalism’s destruction of factories and communities are dismissed as backward or inherently racist.
Stealing Back What’s Stolen
With no leftist alternative to the relentless death-march of globalisation, what the Wolves of Vinland propose is actually an attractive option. A new-old ancient aesthetic built around familial ties, moral codes, re-approach to the land, tribal community, and ethics of self-fulfillment and the reclamation of the body is precisely what Capitalism cannot promise but what resistance to Capital requires. With the exception of Green anarchist, primitivist, anti-colonial, and indigenous movements, the left dismisses such political aesthetic as fascist or least reactionary. But it is neither, except that it is a ceded territory now occupied by fascists.
The primary weapon of anti-fascist organising in the United States has been the use of protests and disruption to silence the voices of fascists and white supremacists. Such tactics, however, can only suffice if those doing the silencing have something equally compelling to say. Unfortunately, few if any of the political aesthetics antifascists offer speak any longer to the crises caused by these new expansions of global capitalism.
It is not enough to say that immigrants must not be discriminated against. Without a conceptual framework which acknowledges how the economic destruction which causes mass immigration in the first place is tied to global capitalism and the policies of the Democratic party in the United States, the left, by focusing their energies only on the racist aspects of anti-immigrant sentiment, is only treating a tertiary symptom of a systemic disorder. Both the horrible economic plight of the immigrant as well as their structural exploitation as weapons against community coherence must be addressed simultaneously, directing our politics back against the capitalists who initiate and maintain the cycle.
So, too, the left can no longer hope that condescension and belittling of anti-modern politics will suffice to stop those politics arising in the first place. Social alienation, the reduction of the human to worker and consumer, the flattening of urban and non-urban life into a great worldwide market in which the same products and same cultural forms annihilate local difference: all these cultural and societal destructions caused by global capitalism will not go away just because urban leftists have made peace with their Instagram accounts and daily lattes, their iPhones and hip clothing made possible by capitalism’s conquest of the entire world.
Particularly the refusal of American leftists to make connections between the police and military violence which gives them access to the resources of the world must be acknowledged and then fought. The hyper-modern urban existence, cluttered with the technological spoils produced by the very same Capitalist exploitation which destroys both indigenous cultures in the global south as well as those of the poor white worker in the United States, must be abandoned. No longer can we pretend inter-connected existence through Facebook and Twitter are adequate replacements for the resilience of local communities and distinct cultural experiences which they displace.
From there, a solidarity can arise with the colonized peoples who have been fighting to preserve their land, culture, and distinction against Empire’s commodification of the world. From such a solidarity, racist and nationalist rhetoric will be easier to fight; when a Mexican immigrant or a Syrian refugee is seen as an ally of the out-of-work American worker against global capitalism, we will no longer need to silence fascists: the poor white worker will no longer have a reason to listen to them.
Unfortunately, we have few examples of what a re-invigorated, anti-modernist, anti-globalist political aesthetic might look like in America except the Wolves of Vinland, and they are not a model we should emulate, but rather a warning of what is replacing us because we fail.
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.