“The sword is the land. The sword is love and love for the wild. It is the love of waves that crash down upon the shore with an unquenchable fury, until it has ground cliffs into dust. It is the love of the mountain, whose heart is iron.”
From Ramon Elani
“Reason will not decide at last; the sword will decide.
The sword: an obsolete instrument of bronze or steel,
formerly used to kill men, but here
In the sense of a symbol.”—Robinson Jeffers
Having dug into the dark water and thick peat, stinking with thousands of years of decaying sacrifices, strewn with half drowned bones, and bits of flesh preserved, I have come to the sword at last. Held aloft, with the ghosts behind me. The sword is the earth, the land itself. And its fire burns with a heat that will blow the world to pieces. Destruction upon the wings. For victory in battle, the sword bears the Tyr rune. Victory comes through dismemberment. We must lose in order to win. The wolf is bound by freely giving the sacrifice of blood, of ruin. Those who fear the sword will be the first to fall beneath it’s blade. The sword is the steward of the bloody and of those whose bodies have bled from wounds that will not heal. Ah, that we should curse the sword for teaching us what we are!
The sword is the land. The sword is love and love for the wild. It is the love of waves that crash down upon the shore with an unquenchable fury, until it has ground cliffs into dust. It is the love of the mountain, whose heart is iron. It is the love of the grove, where beauty was given to oak and wicker. It is the love of the stars, forever exploding in the abyss of space. What shall be said of man? It shall be said that he was “Prince of the plunder, / The unrelenting warrior to his enemy; / Heavy was he in his vengeance; / Terrible was his fighting.” Who dreams of a world governed by a kinder, gentler god dreams of desolation. Who dreams of reason and the triumph of justice will forever dream in vain. Thus we must give our love to the severed hand, though we mourn its loss. For the part that is mutilated is still a part of me and I will not shun it. Wholeness is not what it appears. There is agony in wholeness, though its absence contains a sorrow to break the world.
Humanity is a grotesque enough thing without becoming torn apart by its dreams of a world for which it was never destined. Nevertheless, techno-industrialism promises humanity godhood. Not the bloody commingling of flesh and spirit but the mechanistic arrangement of parts. Isolation, alienation. An ordered world of a compartmentalized humanity. Only be separating itself from the spirit of life can that world be achieved. And what would be left of us by then? What manner of stunted, deformed creatures would still breathe to wander the golden palaces we strive for? The sword is obsolete to the world builders of today and tomorrow. Theirs is a weapon more subtle and dreadful by far. Industrialism had no use for the sword. Those of ages past longed for nothing than to die whole and to dissolve within the heart of the world. To put aside the sword is to curse ourselves even beyond the mark we bear from birth. For the sword is love.
I speak to my son and my daughter, my own Life and the Everlasting Strength of Life. What a world you will face. Dark when I was born, dark when the earth was born, dark when the storms come, dark when our home is buried beneath the dust, dark when the stars fade in the sky, and the universe grows cold. The trouble is coming, the trouble is here. It has been here for longer than we know. And the world and humanity will grow more rotten in your time and in the time of your children to come. Lies notwithstanding we have always known that the gods are not full of boundless love and forgiveness. Love yes, forgiveness perhaps. But they do not rule from on high, dispassionately directing our hands with the calm patience of an endlessly benevolent parent. No, the gods are as cruel as they are loving. And to be born into the world is to accept the law of the sword and the bloody claw. And to strive for something other, to strive to bury the sword and shatter the shining blade is to deny the gods and deny their love. My children inherit a world of ruins, a landscape of bones. They will struggle and fight and they will be unrelenting in their battles and they will bring vengeance and fury. They will be demons in a world of monsters. And the sword will guide them.
Through it all, they will see, as I have seen, the staggering beauty of the iron grey sea. The stars shining in a limpid pool. The sun rising over the piney hills. Beauty, yes. And meaning. The meaning of the cosmos and the secrets of the gods themselves. All these things lie in the simplest, most quiet moments. The whispering trees, stirred by the gentle wind. We are never alone. We stand, sword in hand, and commune with the forces. A vision of humanity perfected is a vision of solipsism. Imperfect but whole, we are a part of that which is beyond us. Only if we listen and respond. For there will always be a voice that echoes in the heart, which can speak in the tongues of rivers and mountains. Even as the floods bear down upon us and threaten to sweep our world away, the gods will talk to us if we listen.
Love the sword, for it is who we are. And in that truth lies our link to the cosmos and self beyond the self. To look in upon humanity, to take the ideologies and madness of our society at face value, is to be damned. It is to live in a desert of our own making. If salvation awaits us, if the gods offer clemency for our many crimes, it can only be sought upon the thundering cliffs and the murky woods.
“The world’s in a bad way, my man,
And bound to be worse before it mends;
Better lie up in the mountain here
Four or five centuries,
While the stars go over the lonely ocean.”—Robinson Jeffers
Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England
More of his writing can be found here.You can also support him on Patreon.
“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!
“The only way for humanity to make itself immune to violence is to allow the creation of a vast authoritarian system that protects individuals from personal violence through the endless impersonal violence of the state.”
This essay, by Ramon Elani, originally appeared in Black Seed 5, along with an essay by Rhyd Wildermuth. Black Seed 5 can be ordered at this link.
“I hate the word peace, as I hate hell.” ~William Shakespeare
“I shall try to make plain the bloodiness of killing. Too often this has been slurred over by those who defend hawks. Flesheating man is in no way superior. It is so easy to love the dead. The word ‘predator’ is baggy with misuse. All birds eat living flesh at some time in their lives. Consider the cold-eyed thrush, that springy carnivore of lawns, worm stabber, basher to death of snails. We should not sentimentalise his song, and forget the killing that sustains it.” ~J.A. Baker
As green anarchists and anarcho-primitivists, we have utterly idealized indigenous or so-called primitive people. In doing so we have failed to understand precisely the reason we should follow their path. Most discourse around primitive life is drawn from western anthropology, though from the conclusions most anarcho-primitivists and green anarchists have drawn, it is clear that very few of them have actually bothered to read the texts they are referring to. Even given the Eurocentric bias of most anthropologists, those texts paint a much richer, more complex, and more conflicted view of primitive life than one finds in the vast majority of anti-civilization writing and discussion.
The most egregious assumption is that primitive life is supposed to be happy and easy. This is, of course, drawn from notions of primitive abundance and leisure. The fact, however, that individuals in primitive communities only worked for a very small amount of time per day does not mean that there were not other difficulties and hardships to be faced. Anarcho-primitivist and green anarchist writers suggest that modern humanity’s neurosis and pathology is entirely a product of the alienating forces of techno-industrial society. Indigenous communities now and in the past had their own ways of understanding and addressing anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Of course, it is likely that they experienced these conditions differently than we do or to a lesser degree but clearly they still exist regardless. To avoid essentializing primitive or indigenous lifeways, we must understand that they experienced as broad a range of emotional states as we do.
In other words, the old assessment that ancient hunter gatherers were happier than we are is irrelevant and likely untrue. It is important here to acknowledge the distinction between the terms anarcho-primitivism and green anarchy. While green anarchy presents a wide range of conceptual apparatus for confronting techno-industrial society, Anarcho-primitivism dogmatically insists on a prescriptive vision of non-civilized life. For anarcho-primitivists, the only communities that count are ones in which no power structures or symbolic culture exist at all. In this vision, since there is no oppression of any kind or rupture with the non-human world, there are no social or existential problems. It is, of course, unlikely that such a community has ever existed.
Primitive life certainly involved hardship and suffering. Contrary to much received wisdom, violence was universal among primitive communities and remains so in those that persist to this day. Primitive life was also not a leftist utopia of perfect egalitarianism. Of course, the fact that pain, suffering, trauma, and tragedy was always present does not mean that joy, happiness, and pleasure were not also always present. Perhaps it is so, as I believe, that the very presence of ubiquitous violence and struggle intensified the feelings of happiness, contentment, and satisfaction that ancient people experienced. But in the end, this is neither here nor there. The point is that primitive life is superior to our own because its impact on the biosphere was minimal and people lived in close contact with the non-human world; that is the only reason and that is sufficient.
People who do not know what it means to fight cannot understand violence. They fear it because they have never experienced it. Aside from posturing and play acting, most anarchists and activists have never experienced violence. This is not to say, of course, that many of them have not been brutalized by the police, etc. Fighting with an enemy is not the same thing as being ruthlessly beaten by an anonymous employee whom you cannot strike back against, or harassing racists and idiots in the streets.
The violence of the mob, of the masses, is a different beast entirely. It is more akin to being crushed by a blind stampede of herd animals than anything else. Traditional people understood the need for ritual combat, for battle enacted under the strictest and most sacred terms: tt make a square within staves of hazel, to tie your strap to a spear plunged into the dirt.
Among the ancient people of Scandinavia the power of the state was weak and in the absence of a police or military to enforce the law, individuals resorted to ritual combat to resolve conflicts without disrupting the community as a whole. This practice, known as holmgang, involved the voluntary participation of both combatants and stipulated that the source of the conflict must end with the conclusion of the duel. In other words, the rules of holmgang were designed to ensure that other family members did not get caught up in the feud. Moreover, holmgang did not require one of the two combatants to die. In many cases the drawing of first blood was considered sufficient to determine a victor. Unsurprisingly, the practice of holmgang was outlawed in the early 11th century as Christian law stamped out pagan ways of life and hegemonic power grew in the region.
Even in such classic works of anthropology as Stanley Diamond’s In Search of the Primitive, we find a picture of traditional life that fully embraces violence. Diamond writes, “the point is that the wars and rituals of primitive society (and the former usually had the style of the latter), are quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from the mechanized wars of civilization.” This is to say, the type of violence, the experience of the violence, makes an enormous difference. As critics of civilization and techno-industrial society we have inadequately accounted for this. Violence and war are not to be feared or condemned. It is the nature of the violence that must be interrogated and reconsidered.
The custom of counting coup, practiced by the tribes of the American Plains, is an important historical example to cite here. To count coup means to demonstrate one’s bravery and courage by achieving a number of increasingly difficult feats on the battlefield. As George Bird Grinnell observed among the Cheyenne and Crow, “the bravest act that could be performed was to count coup on—to touch or strike—a living unhurt man and to leave him alive.” Joe Medicine Crow, the last war chief of the Crow Nation, achieved this feat a number of times as a soldier during World War II. Among his many achievements include disarming and fighting an enemy officer in hand-to-hand combat, as well as stealing 50 horses from a German battalion and riding off while singing Crow war songs. According to his obituary, Medicine Crow felt war to be “the finest sport in the world.”
As ancient people understood well through their war cults and warrior societies, there is tremendous wisdom and meaning to be gained through violence. In the first case you learn that pain is just another sensation in the body, it does not need to be feared. In the second case, to stand proudly against another, an equal, is to test yourself in a way that we have little ability to replicate. It is a form of physical relationship with another that is unique. You learn that you are strong, that you are skilled. You also learn that there is strength in the other. That sometimes your strength and your skill are insufficient and you strive to make yourself stronger. You learn about the world, about the nature of life, grounded in the body. Modern humanity is utterly separated from this. To return to Diamond: “war is a kind of play. No matter what the occasion for hostility, it is particularized, personalized, ritualized. Conversely, civilization represses hostility in the particular, fails to use or structure it, even denies it.”
The violence that we experience, as modern, civilized humans, that we perceive around us in countless ways, brings nothing but trauma. It is utterly, radically distinct from the violence of the primitive societies. It is depersonalized, sterile, and more destructive on a previously unimaginable scale of magnitude. In techno-industrial society we experience the violence of the police, the violence of men against women, the desperate random violence of humans driven to madness and hopelessness, violence against minorities, violence against the poor, and most importantly, no matter where we are, all around us, every single hour of every day we experience unspeakable degrees of violence against the earth.
Moreover, the soldier is not the warrior. The warrior longs for meaning, for connection with the cosmos and himself. The soldier is an automated, anonymous employee. It searches for nothing. It kills because it has been programmed to kill. It has no joy, no sorrow, no thought of what it does. When such emotions do occur they are shoved deep into hidden places in the soul and when they break out they cause insanity and horror. The violence of the soldier is the violence of the machine. It is a bloodless kind of violence, a violence that erodes the soul, no matter what it does to the body. Those pitiful beings that serve as the instruments of the brutality of the machine understand nothing, they are numb and insensate. They are appendages of the thing that annihilates. They have never felt the challenge of facing a foe who is trained and prepared for them, to be joined in valor. They execute. They bomb. They murder. Existentially, they count for nothing. Their lives are nothing.
Peace is understood as little as battle. Peace is not synonymous with joy, nor with righteousness, nor with abundance. Peace has only ever been achieved through history’s greatest atrocities. Peace has only ever meant power to the victor and misery and degradation to the vanquished. We, in the heart of technoindustrial society, are experiencing what peace means. A life devoid of joy. A sterile life. A non-life. And worse still, it is a life maintained perpetually by the slaughter of those on the fringes of our world. As the world-machine continues to expand outward, more and more will be pacified and brought within our life of shopping malls, endless highways, obesity, sickness, despair. And peace will reign. Peace, peace, peace.
What do we long for? A life of joy and passion. A life that is alive, throbbing with blood. A world that pulses with vitality. Do we want the icy porcelain bodies of mechanized gods? Or do we want living animal bodies that break and heal and decay and die? The latter is the body that is shaped by violence, by suffering, by hardship. Just as it is shaped by joy, pleasure, and robust health. Ancient people did not live a life without pain. They suffered acutely and they experienced joy acutely. We experience neither truly. What would you choose? Who would not trade this world of atomic bombs, environmental annihilation, and mechanized dehumanization for a world of primal war?
But let us be clear: the world we have is the world that exists. And wishing will not make it otherwise. Moreover, the skill, courage, and strength of the warrior will never defeat the impersonal mechanized destroyer.
In our greatest manifestations and noblest moments, we are beasts. The myth of human exceptionalism has poisoned us to the core. There is nothing wrong with being animals, in fact it is a far greater thing than the fantasies that humans tell themselves about their supposed superiority. Anything good that has come from human action or thought has come from our animals nature. The evil and vileness we do, contrary to received wisdom, comes the part of us that no other animal shares. To understand this means to understand that the world of beasts involves its own kind of brutality. When lions slaughter hyena babies, it is not because they are hungry. We dislike this because of our human moralizing. We easily perceive that “nature, red in tooth and claw” is not the whole story. But it is an inescapable part of the story.
The only way for humanity to make itself immune to violence is to allow the creation of a vast authoritarian system that protects individuals from personal violence through the endless impersonal violence of the state. If you can’t protect yourself, you will rely on someone else to protect you, whether you realize it or not, regardless of the cost. Humanity is capable of radically limiting pain and suffering. We can live longer and longer. We can cure diseases. We can create enlightened societies with relatively low rates of violence. All of these things come at the cost of the earth, the things of the earth, and our connection to the earth.
Posing a vision of humanity without hardship or suffering denies the reality of the wild world and it distracts us from what is truly important: not the avoidance of pain but our unity with the myriad things and spirits of the world. The strength and the future of the human race lies only in its ability to show proper reverence to the gods of the earth.
Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father. Until recently he was a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England
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.
“Violence is a sacred act, but by sterilizing it, by treating all violence as bad, we disengage from the process of death and renewal. We disengage from our own wild nature. We lose fertility in the soil of our souls and become a barren land.”
On the Nature of Violence, from Mathieu Thiem
There is an aspect of violence which is sacred that we have all but forgotten. We have succumbed to a trend in which rage, anger, desperation, pain and great struggle have been swept under the rug for the sake of higher ideals sterilized from the gritty reality of injustice and suffering.
When we really understand violence, we come to find that it points to the underlying conditions which have manifested it. Violence is merely the symptom of a greater problem. There are terrible issues with violence, don’t assume that I am somehow stating it is a good thing, but by lumping all kinds of violence into one category, we do a disservice to violence as an indicator of a deeper disharmony.
In many “pre-civilized” societies, violence was an inevitable part of the conditions of life. Such societies even ritualized violent wars to become the outlet by which conflict between tribes was resolved. Sure, people died in warfare, but far fewer compared to the wars of empire. Ritualization of violence was a way by which people could have a controlled and sacred space to confront the darker nature of themselves and society. It was a way of giving voice to their darkness so that they could hear the powerful medicine that lay embedded in its constructs. But when we have lost this ability to give voice to our shadows, when we have lost the ability to seek medicine with the intelligent connections of struggle and conflict, how then do we hide violence within our lives?
In civilization, where we eschew violence altogether (unless it is the violence of the State), violence emerges and interweaves itself throughout our society without most ever being cognizant of it. For instance, privilege is an act of systemic violence, money is an act of systemic violence, so too is class, rape culture, hierarchy, bosses, fines, taxes that pay for war and programs that oppress, coca cola, coffee, chocolate, gas lighting–the list goes on and on. Violence is interwoven within society in some very unnoticeable ways. We often don’t realize the weight of injustice pressed upon us, nor what we perpetuate in turn.
Instead of viewing violence as a moral problem of right and wrong, we need to view violence as an indicator of deeper cultural pathologies. Many of us feel a deep revulsion to the term violence, as many of us have seen its effects, but when I talk about sacred violence it tends to also have a near identical response, if not coupled with a kind of morbid curiosity. I challenge you to look into this feeling and its underlying conditions.
Sacred violence is less about committing violence against the other and more about understanding violence as an indicator of a deeper problem. We act in violence everyday, our lives revolve around violence. And there are many times we unknowingly commit acts of violence against another. This can be readily observed within loving relationships where partners or family members violate your agency or seek to control you by projecting their identities of you onto the world and yourself. There is a deep controlling narrative to human relationships that can be extremely toxic; however, these again are symptoms of a pathology that caused people to be this way. In many ways violence is the only way we know how to confront a problem, not because we desire to, but because we truly don’t know how else to act (if we are even conscious of our violent responses). It is only by engaging in struggle that the reality of the solution can be found.
This is the crux of the problem with anti-violence: it is merely avoidance. Rather than seeking to sterilize the problem of violence, why don’t we bring forth its sacred nature and understand it for the reality it is exposing? Why do we not use violence as a way of uprooting the problems before they turn into a hidden monstrosity?
When we look upon a weed growing forth from crumbling concrete, we recognize this as a beautiful resistance. We fully comprehend this act of violence as a mode of righteous resistance, and according to many who view violence simply as destruction, is that not what is occurring when nature tears down empires? Do we look down upon the thunderbird as it destroys a city? Do we curse the strong oak tree for burning up the mulch machine? Do we demonize the wolf for killing the deer?
Nature’s violence is embedded into its operations. This violence is not a malice, but a striving towards survival and liberation. If we are able to see nature’s violence as a beautiful resistance, an affirmation of life, then why are we humans alienating ourselves from this nature and setting ourselves apart from these acts of sacred violence? Humanity’s act of sterilizing the natural world goes right into our morality as well, especially that of non-violence.
Those who view the dandelion in the concrete as weeds are themselves the perverse. Those who see the oak tree as an obstruction are the sick. Those who build cities in the path of thunderbirds are not heeding the wisdom of the land. Those who want the wolves dead are the ones who are desecrating the world. Those who seek to sterilize nature and prop up the great virtues of civilization are the same folk that seek to desecrate nature and create a world of hollow human values.
It perplexes me to see people assume there is always a way to avoid violence. We seem to think that there is always a way to escape the consequences of our actions, but this is always a lie. Reality doesn’t play out that way. Our actions are embedded into the system from which we operate, and we will always be made to face them. The things that cause us to struggle and live in pain, these things that come from the culmination of our externalized suffering, ingnoring responsibility whether collectively or individually, these things will always come back to cause us the pain that we sought to escape. We cannot escape the results of our actions. We can not cheat the ending of all things. The suffering and death of life: this will always be our fate.
Why then pretend there is always a way out? Why assume that we can bypass the struggle and pain of violent reorganizations of society and the self? Whether we are responsible for it or not, life does not ensure there is a way out of suffering, rather we are all the victims of the past. We are all bearers of the cycles of violence committed against one another. This violence moves forward with us. As long as we seek to deny death and suffering a rightful place at the table of our community, we will suffer the consequences of dishonored ancestors. We will be haunted by the unvirtuous dead that rise up during our own Ragnarok.
The story of Fenrir helps to understand violence. Odin and the Aesir were afraid of Fenrir, the wild chaotic nature of violence, and they bound him up in fear and cowardice of the inevitability of their own frailty. They thought that by controlling the process of the violence of nature, they could forever be safe. But it was this very action of seeking to bind and hide away this violence that they made an enemy of it. Externalizing their suffering became the very cause of their demise. The binding of Fenrir was the creation of a monster: out of fear they sought to bind him, and from the binding he grew in ferocity.
Often the only way to resolve conflict is to actually engage in the struggle. We must actively seek to wrestle the violent aspects of our nature to gain the relational intelligence that can open up the doors of resolving that violence. Within society and ourselves there are monsters that come to light only through our struggle in conflict. To ignore these darker parts of ourselves is to ignore reality. They need an outlet. They need a stage on which to be played.
Try to sterilize this concept of violence and we lose the fertility of its composting. Violence breaks things down in a way that allows for new things to grow. Violence is a sacred act, but by sterilizing it, by treating all violence as bad, we disengage from the process of death and renewal. We disengage from our own wild nature. We lose fertility in the soil of our souls and become a barren land.
There is a wildness at the heart of resistance. A ferocity let loose when facing oppression. Capitalism culls this ferality out of us, it tames us by commoditizing the meaning of our lives. But we only need to let it run free. There is within our wild ferocious hearts a yearning for freedom. Our desire to sink our teeth into an oppressor’s neck is not the same old cycle of violence, but the natural cycle of life. This sacred violence that we crave is none other than the ritual of life feeding death feeding life. To sterilize this sacred violence with civility is merely a perverse ideal wrapped in the packaging of commodified desecration. So let the blood flow from where it may. Let your teeth sink into all forms of injustice and pull out the jugular for all to see.
Mathieu Thiem is a bioregional animist who spends his time studying the art of mythic living and running a blog called The Woven Song. www.wovensong.com
“A small percentage of the world is benefiting from Capitalism, while the rest of the world lives in abject poverty. At some point, those people may decide they’ve had enough, and the backlash will be ‘not good.’”
From Rhyd Wildermuth, an editorial on Welsh myth and the inevitability of ‘violent revolution.’
Recently I found myself in an argument regarding capitalism with another Pagan writer. I’m an anti-capitalist, he runs a prosperity-magic course to help people get better at capitalism, so you can imagine the conversation was not really going very far. At some point, however, he changed the subject slightly and asked me this:
“I keep hearing G&R calls for violence. Knowing that people take things out of context all the time, are you talking about violent response when confronted with violence from the state/private security or are you talking about proactive violence against the wealthy?”
The question arises occasionally, and the answer is hardly a simple one. Does Gods&Radicals call for violence? And what sort of violence do we call for?
The question first of all showed a misunderstanding of what Gods&Radicals is. We are not a political party. We are an anti-capitalist non-profit publisher. We are also hardly monolithic. Some writers are dedicated deeply to non-violent resistance, some are pacifists, some see violent defense as justifiable when attacked by police or white supremacists, and some writers are insurrectionists.
None of us speaks for anyone else, and that goes doubly for myself. While I am a co-founder and the managing editor of this site, I am neither its king nor high-priest.
I cannot and won’t speak for anyone else who writes with us unless they ask me to. That’s called anarchism, by the way.
My eventual answer to this person was that we take no collective stance for or against violence, which is true. His response was intriguing:
“The fact that people within the organization are calling for it…and the organization has no stand against it makes it culpable.”
That is, by not taking a direct stance against violence (that is, without siding with the current capitalist order), we therefore are arguing for violence. Again, the ‘we’ in this formulation is not quite correct; I manage the organisation, but I do not speak for any of the writers. I technically have the power to tell a writer they cannot take a certain stand on violence. I don’t. They probably wouldn’t write with us any more if I did, and anyway: I’m an anarchist.
I should also admit: I am probably more comfortable with the idea of violence against the rich then, say, a pro-capitalist prosperity sorcerer might be. The reason why should probably be obvious: I am probably not the sort of target the poor are likely to go after. Likewise, in any revolutionary scenario, the police and military are not going to be protecting me or anything that I hold dear. I do not own a business or a home, I do not own a car or stocks, and everything I do ‘own’ (including the computer I write on, which cost $150 two years ago) can fit in my backpack.
Thus, the angry poor are likely not going to be coming for me, but if they ever do revolt, they’d be more likely to go after people like him.
The Broken Cauldron
If speaking of such things makes you very uncomfortable, I apologize. It makes me rather uncomfortable too, especially since there are many people I know and love who would likely get caught up as targets in a mass uprising because of their perceived (and often real) wealth, status, and support for the capitalist system. Likewise, I know some very poor people who dress quite fashionably–they could be easily mistaken for being rich. Further, I have met some very rich and exploitative people who are incredibly good at hiding their wealth.
The problem is that violent revolts do not operate on the same principles of polite society. In fact, they are suspensions of polite society and revolts against it.
Those who benefit from a society may not necessarily see the violence inherent in that system. If they do, they may dismiss that violence as acceptable or sanctioned. So when outbreaks of violence against the system occur, those outbreaks seem both incomprehensible and unprovoked.
A Welsh myth, Branwen fearch Llyr, illustrates this point quite well. For those unfamiliar with the story, I’ll summarize it:
There was once a giant named Brân, king of Wales. One day, the king of Ireland arrived with several fully-armed warships, and Brân hosted them in his lands. The king of Ireland then asked to marry Brân’s sister, Branwen, and Brân agreed, seeing it a good way to keep peace between their kingdoms.
Brân and Branwen had a half-brother, Efnysien fab Euroswydd. His name meant ‘not good,’ and he was away when it was decided that Branwen would marry. Efynsien became angry about not being consulted, and so cut off the lips and eyelids of the Irish king’s horses, vandalizing his ‘property,’
The Irish king was furious and was now ready for war. Brân learned what had happened, and rather then fighting them (especially now that his sister was married into Ireland), he gave the king of Ireland an ancient cauldron capable of raising dead soldiers.
The king recognised this cauldron, and asked Brân how he came to have it in Wales. Brân explained that two giants had come bearing it across the sea, fleeing persecution. He gave them shelter, and they gave him the cauldron in return. The king of Ireland replied with his own story. It was he from whom the giants originally fled. They lived in Ireland for awhile, but the children they birthed scared the nobles of Ireland with their strength. So the king tried to burn the giants and their children alive inside an iron house. The giants survived though,and took the cauldron with them across the sea where Brân welcomed them.
Fast forward a few years. A bird arrived bearing news to Brân that his sister was being beaten and forced into slavery by her husband. Brân traveled across the sea with an army (including his half-brother, Efnysien) to rescue her. When he arrived, however, the king of Ireland welcomed him, offering him a house large enough in which the giant could sleep. Also, the house was filled with 100 sacks of grain and other riches, proof that the king did not want war with Wales.
Efnysien went through the house late that night, stabbing each sack of grain. Instead of wheat or oats, however, blood poured out from where he plunged the knife: each sack contained a soldier ready to assassinate Brân as he slept. The next day, Brân was invited to dinner with the king of Ireland and Branwen, who now had a child, Gwern. Such a child officially meant peace between the two peoples. However, Efnysien, the child’s uncle, grabbed him and threw him into a fire, killing him and starting a war. That war desolated Ireland, led to Branwen’s death by heartache and Brân’s death by a poisoned spear.
It also meant the end of Efnysien. The Irish king had used the Cauldron to raise each soldier who died in battle against the Welsh to fight again, and to stop it, Efnysien pretended to be dead so he would be thrown inside. The moment his living body landed in the cauldron, he and the cauldron shattered.
All readings of this myth lay upon Efnysien the guilt for all the violence which eventually ends both the Irish and Welsh kingdoms. On the surface, this seems definitely true: Efnysien maimed the Irish king’s horses for no apparent reason, and it was his murder of Gwern (his nephew) that triggered the war between the kingdoms. And anyway, Efnysien was ‘not good.’
The thing is, this reading misses all the other violence in the story. The king of Ireland previously tried to burn innocent giants alive, giants who had done nothing wrong except scare and threaten the rich. Then, the king married a giantess and treated her like a slave (after, according to the tale, she gave so many gifts to people that the nobles became threatened by her generosity). Then, he hid 100 assassins in the house he ‘gifted’ to Brân in order to kill him in his sleep.
While the story itself gives no indication whether or not Efysien acted specifically out of spite or from a full view of the truly violent nature of the Irish king, it is easy to see Efnisien’s maiming of the horses and murder of his nephew (both acts against innocents) as more treacherous and more evil than the Irish king’s violence against Branwen, the giants who forged the cauldron, and his attempted murder of Brân himself.
But the question of violence is never that easy.
Making the Invisible Visible
Efnysien, ‘not good,’ perfectly describes revolutionary violence. Innocents are caught up. Windows are smashed, property is destroyed, people (including innocent children) are killed. From the perspective of anyone doing relatively ‘okay’ in Western capitalist societies, such violence is not only horrific, but utterly without justification.
From such a perspective, any revolutionary acts which harm innocents are immediately not just illegitimate, but worse than the very political and economic order that they attempt to replace. Even those of us who do not do well under capitalism tend to feel disgust at the idea of such violence.
The problem with such a perspective is that it ignores that the current capitalist order already kills innocent children. Police murder unarmed Black kids in the streets very often in the United States, Democracies casually drop bombs on school kids in the Middle East, children in inner-cities are poisoned with chemicals in their water and schools, and we do not even have a full picture of how many children will eventually die from radiation poisoning or global warming in the next few decades.
The sheer scale of violence against innocents within Capitalism doesn’t stop at children. Capitalism’s extinction of entire species and the mechanized slaughter of farm animals through industrial agriculture makes Efnysien’s maiming of several royal horses seems quite amateur.
The problem is that this violence is often invisible, just like the systematic violence carried out upon Black communities in the United States which leads to ‘violent’ manifestations. These very visible manifestations are often painted as childish outbursts or events of blind rage, and become quickly dismissed by the middle-class, because what led up to it was invisible.
If you’ve ever been an adult responding to a fight between children, you maybe already understand how this dynamic works. My youngest nephew, for instance, became a master of trapping his older brother into a liberal democratic politic. He’d repeatedly hit him when no one was watching, knowing that he won’t cry. When the older finally tired of the repeated slaps or pinches and retaliated, the younger nephew would then cry loudly, provoking a ‘police’ response from his parents.
It is often the same in oppressed and poor communities throughout the capitalist world. Repeated killings of unarmed people, repeated poisonings or land-theft (gentrification) or other systematic violence remains invisible except to the people to whom it occurs.
When they are no longer willing to endure the violence, they respond. When they respond, those of us who did not witness the long build-up of violence against them see only their violent response and thus blame the victim again, just like my nephew manipulated his parents into punishing his brother.
In perhaps her most famous interview, former Black Panther Angela Davis says exactly this same thing. Asked by a reported while she was in prison if she approved of violent revolution, she responded:
“oh, is that the question you were asking? yeah see, that’s another thing. When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence, without realizing that the real content of any revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you’re striving for, not in the way you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society’s organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions.You have to expect things like that as reactions…
…That’s why, when someone asks me about violence, I just, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”
Davis’s point extends to every other oppressed community within Capitalist societies, as well as those in other countries who suffer daily from the actions of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other western nations. This same dynamic also describes the ‘outbursts of violence’ from domestic abuse victims who kill their abusers, or workers who steal from their bosses, or displaced people who vandalize new businesses in gentrified neighborhoods.
Those who did not experience or witness the previous violence will be more likely to see these moments of visible violence as disconnected, unrelated, or even fully-separated from the reasons for the violence. But this does not by itself explain the entire process, because the invisible violence is no less senseless than the visible outbursts from which we recoil, and some of us benefit much more from that violence.
“Please Revolt Peacefully”
As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the critic who accused Gods&Radicals of being ‘violent’ is more likely to be a target of violent revolutionary uprisings than I am, and not necessarily through any direct fault of his own. Certainly, having more than those who have little makes one more likely a target, especially when that wealth is in the form of property like automobiles or homes. However, the degree to which he or others who live similar lifestyles are actually ‘the problem’ is only a matter of subjective perception. He is not part of the ‘super rich’ or even the ‘very rich.’ He is likely not a Trump supporter, nor does he actively kick homeless people in the street or wish for poor people to be shot by police.
Marxists and anarchists called the position he and many others occupy within society as ‘the bourgeoisie.’ The word literally means ‘city-dweller’ in French and applied specifically to the shop-owners, factory-owners, and others who became powerful after the French revolution beheaded the aristocracy.
The term is still in use even among non-Marxists in France and Germany, but in the United States and the United Kingdom (which never saw successful revolts against the rich), the term ‘middle-class’ is used instead. However, the middle-class is a moving target: most people in America consider themselves middle-class, whether they make $20,000 a year or $250,000. What really only seems to unite them as a ‘class’ is probably best said to be their own certainty that they are neither poor nor rich.
The conception of the bourgeoisie, however, was never merely their economic status, but also their general attitude towards capitalism. To be bourgeois is to believe capitalism is an effective way to organize society and to prioritize values that keep capitalism healthy. These core values unite both conservatives and liberals, though they often disagree on how to implement them. Looking at those values, one gets a better sense of what the bourgeoisie actually are about.
laws against sleeping in parks or streets,
laws against public drunkenness,
a well-funded police force,
strong national defense,
courts which severely punish property crimes (auto-theft, burglary, bank-robbery).
It goes without saying that the poor have less interest in such things. In fact, the primary target of many of these laws are the poor, particularly poor people of color. The poor are more likely to rob a bank or scream drunkenly on the street than the middle-classes. More so, one does not hear of many business-owners or internet-technology professionals stealing cars or breaking-and-entering.
Thus, the values of the bourgeoisie do not only run counter to the existence of the poor, they specifically criminalize things that the poor do to survive. We can thus see why the poor might not care if a person who stands for such things voted for Trump or Hillary, whether they support socialized health care or oppose abortion. What the middle-classes have that the poor do not is money, property, and access to more of the same, as well as a state which defends their interests and a class-wide support of the capitalist system which ensures the poor never have more than what it takes to survive (if even that).
When you expand this outward from the societies of Liberal (Capitalist) Democracies to the rest of the world, you see the divide is even more severe. Even the poorest Americans have more access to wealth than the average Haitian, and a significant reason why this is the case is American foreign military and economic policy supported by the American bourgeoisie. The same extends to France (where I currently live), the rest of Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada and every other Liberal Democracy.
A small percentage of the world is benefiting from Capitalism, while the rest of the world lives in abject poverty, experiencing the invisible violence caused by Capitalism.
At some point, those people may decide they’ve had enough, and the backlash will be ‘not good.’
Violence is Not-Good, But It Will Happen Anyway
So, the question of whether or not Gods&Radicals or I take a stand for or against violence against the rich is really an irrelevant one.
The violence seems inevitable regardless of how I feel about the matter. Corporations, governments, and police-forces certainly agree on this: for the last decade, they’ve invested heavily in new arms, new surveillance, and new prisons to deal with the inevitable backlash. The militarization of the police forces in the United States and France that has led to increasing murders of unarmed poor people and minorities is not some unfortunate accident.
They know what’s coming.
Personally? I hate violence and wish we can have a non-violent revolution. But let’s not delude ourselves: what I personally believe about the usefulness or goodness of violence will have absolutely no effect on uprisings in European and North American cities in the next decade. This truth extends to what the bourgeoisie believe, too.
‘Non-violence’ is a religious mantra of the bourgeoisie themselves. When a protest turns violent, it is the (mostly-white) middle-classes who are the first to denounce the actions. “I don’t support violence,” they often say, forgetting that it is them for whom the police and military exist.
This class-solidarity is often stronger than racial solidarity. In Ferguson and Baltimore, many Black middle-class people opposed the expressions of rage and anger of the poor who were tired of their children being shot on the streets. In the protests at Standing Rock, many well-off elders actively attempted to eject poorer and angrier First Nations protestors from the camps. And among whites, bourgeois class solidarity is the most pronounced: middle-class liberals in protests often do the work of the police for them, unmasking Black Bloc protesters and helping to detain poor people within marches who break windows or throw stuff at cops.
While some in the “middle-class” perhaps truly believe in non-violence, I suspect there is a darker, unconscious reason.
The violence which sustains capitalism isn’t entirely invisible. Perhaps they are not as ignorant about the state of the world as they pretend to be. Perhaps they’ve made the connections between real estate sales and homelessness, business profits and poverty, Liberal Democratic ‘freedoms’ and the subjugation of entire continents, the connection between ‘our way of life’ and the destruction of nature.
Maybe they’ve seen the violence, and then looked away. Maybe they tried to forget, hoping no one noticed the sacks aren’t full of grain but assassins, that they tried to burn giants alive, that there’s an immigrant slave-woman in the kitchen being beaten and abused.
Perhaps it’s all feigned ignorance. Perhaps that’s why they insist that violence is always ‘not good,’ because they know they are the violent ones.
I suspect that nothing can stop what is coming, not my own feelings on the matter, nor a bourgeois commitment to non-violence, nor even all the billions of dollars spent by governments and police and corporations to prevent the sort of revolutionary violence that will leave us all uttering Efnysien’s name: Not good.
And if it comes to that, I suspect it will be better to be on the side of the poor than the people who oppress them, regardless the outcome. For it not to come to that, the ‘middle class’ who truly believe violence is ‘not good’ must start following that belief to its logical conclusion.
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, and shirtless selfies occasionally seen on his FB. and also his Instagram
If you liked this essay, you’ll love Dr. Bones’ new book: Curse Your Boss, Hex The State, Take Back The World. It’s on pre-sale now!
The “mask of the warrior” I wrote about in Strong Toward the Powerful is no longer hypothetical. All over the United States, people determined to resist the Trump regime and its fascist allies are masking up and taking to the streets.
The black mask of antifascism scares some people, but that doesn’t make it wrong. When you’re faced with a threat as serious as this one, there is no ethical option except to fight back. “Fighting” can mean many different things, and in any conflict throughout history most participants are not in frontline roles. This struggle needs everyone, not only those who are prepared to personally put a mask on and punch a Nazi leader in the face.
There are some highly effective and disruptive nonviolent tactics available for those who are simply unwilling to throw a punch no matter what. The heroic water protectors at Standing Rock have repeatedly put their own bodies on the line without harming their opponents. However, there is also a type of “pacifism” that is far less admirable, because it mostly consists of lecturing other protesters about nonviolence while refusing to take any risks or carry out any effective action at all.
In its most extreme form, pure pacifism is a false value system, a self-serving attempt to maintain one’s own moral purity even if it means allowing torture, murder and every other atrocity to go unchallenged. It is also extremely rare, because hardly anyone who claims to be a pacifist is truly a pacifist. Most of the liberals who condemn anti-fascist and Black Bloc activity and claim to support only non-violent methods are simply being hypocrites.
If you have supported any military intervention anywhere for any reason, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. (Not even if the president who sent the troops into battle was a Democrat!) Bombs, missiles and bullets do the same thing to human bodies no matter who pulls the trigger, pushes the button or gives the order.
If there are any circumstances under which you would call the police, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. The police carry batons, stun guns, pepper spray and firearms and they will use any or all of those on anyone who resists them. When you make the decision to call the police on a person, you are using violence or the threat of violence to achieve your objectives in the situation — even if those objectives are perfectly noble. Violence does not magically become less violent when you contract it out.
When people condemn “violent protests” but support the police and the military, they are not taking a pacifist position at all but an authoritarian one. Right now, as you read this, there are Antifa volunteers fighting with the YPG against Daesh in Syria. The YPG has American support, so they are widely seen as heroes of the “War on Terror.” When Antifa shuts down a Nazi rally here in the United States, our enemies on the Right denounce us as terrorists and some liberals go along with them. Antifa fights against fascists all over the world, the only difference between one situation and the other is that they have our government’s blessing in one case and not in the other. That is not a coherent moral stance. Simply put, the people complaining about Antifa have bought into the State’s claim to hold a monopoly on the use of violence. That’s all the State really is, after all — an armed organization that has successfully claimed a monopoly on violence within a certain territory.
The State has a vested interest in obscuring this fact, so it defines “terrorism” not as an attempt to terrorize but as any political violence carried out without government permission. When Al Qaeda blows up a wedding party with a suicide bomb, it’s committing terrorism. When the CIA does the exact same thing with a drone strike, it’s fighting terrorism.
Not surprisingly, anarchists do not consider this distinction to be legitimate. If violence is always unjustifiable it remains unjustifiable when committed by the agents of the State. If violence is sometimes necessary, it remains so regardless of whether the fighters are wearing the right uniform or not.
If pacifism is often an incoherent and hypocritical position, what about its opposite? Some people romanticize armed struggle without asking themselves how well it really works in practice or under what specific circumstances it would be justifiable or necessary. Anyone who has studied the history of armed struggle knows that it rarely achieves the intended results. Just because a tactic is more destructive does not mean it is more effective. It would be far better to never get involved in radical politics at all than to simply ruin lives and destroy things while leaving society as unjust and oppressive as you found it. My personal opinion is that people should only take up arms when they have no other choice. How do you know when you have no other choice? I can’t answer that riddle for anyone; it depends entirely on your real circumstances. Study the history of armed uprisings and you will not find yourself eager to try it if you don’t have to.
Among the anarchist philosophers, Godwin rejected revolutionary violence because coercion of any kind was against the principles he stood for. Bakunin embraced it, because he thought the oppressive power of the State could be broken only through a cataclysm. I don’t exactly take either position. When it comes to anarchism, I am content to spread my ideas by writing and talking about them, like Godwin. When it comes to resisting tyranny and fascism, I believe in fighting back. However, I don’t think that “fighting back” means nihilistic destruction. There’s a scene in the Tain where the hills and plains of Ulster literally turn gray from all the pulverized brains. I think we can all agree that this is not the outcome we’re going for! It’s not as simple as saying that you are either for violence or against it. When it comes to punching Nazis, I am for. When it comes to coating the landscape with random brains, I am definitely against.
Some fanatics on the Right — including Steve Bannon — have been fantasizing for years about an apocalyptic civil war to cleanse the nation of people like you and me. No individual person can have much effect on whether a civil war happens or not, but the fact that it’s even being talked about should terrify you. You could make a case that we should be getting ready for a worst-case scenario, but anyone who would try to make it happen is not your friend.
If you agree with my analysis, neither pure pacifism nor its opposite are justifiable positions. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a nuanced position, in which we acknowledge that conflict is a reality while also respecting the sanctity of life.
That’s not an easy answer, because it doesn’t present a clear and unambiguous script for every situation. It leaves the moral complexity of conflict in place and forces you to make decisions contextually, based on what’s really happening in that moment. It requires you to do everything in your power to minimize harm—sometimes by not fighting, sometimes by fighting, and sometimes by choosing one tactic instead of another in the middle of a fight.
As it says in The Instructions of King Cormac:
If you are too hard, you will be broken
If you are too feeble, you will be crushed.
The bombers and bank robbers of the ‘70s were broken; Occupy was crushed. If we don’t want to be broken or crushed, we need to embrace the ambiguity of the situation and wage our struggle in a way that is neither too hard nor too feeble.
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.
Christopher Scott Thompson is the author of Pagan Anarchism, available from Gods&Radicals.
The heart of Montana’s Flathead Valley has always been a cash-flushed vacation destination for those hitting the nearby mountains, perusing well-oiled ski resorts and the kitschy shops that live off of its financial success. Whitefish, a town with a population scarcely above 5,000, is one of the most traveled towns along the valley, with restaurants and antique shops littering its tourism district. It is along these streets that a procession of neo-Nazis promise to march against “Jewish power,” flooding in from out of state, automatic weapons in tow.
Andrew Anglin, the host of the neo-Nazi and Alt Right blog the Daily Stormer, has called for an armed march on Whitefish. The Daily Stormer mixes traditional genocidal Nazi ideas of racial superiority and anti-Semitism with the digital tirades so typical of the new Alt Right. In the world of contemporary white nationalism, the traditional “Stormfront” crowd of skinheads, Klansman, and other insurrectionary racialists has found their access to the more hip Alt Right through Anglin’s site.
Anglin had promised to ship in neo-Nazi skinheads from the San Francisco area, including a supposed Hamas member and vigilantes from the Soldiers of Odin, to descend on the town on January 16th, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Anglin renamed it James Earl Ray Day after the man who assassinated King on his trip to visit striking sanitation workers. While Anglin came on strong with a promise of terrorism, it was exactly his exaggeration and the Alt Right’s pattern of creating smoke without fire that created the kernel of their failure. In a world where white nationalism has become commonplace, anti-fascism has grown by mammoth proportions. Anglin’s threat was a catalyzing event that allowed anti-fascist organizations, both community-based and more militant, to take the next step towards a united community that forced Anglin to finally concede defeat.
The Alt Right Mythology
While Alt Right people associated with the Daily Stormer and the surrounding constellations of podcasts, blogs, and busy Twitter accounts have always presented themselves as a movement that is new and intellectual rather than violent, this is a façade that has been cultivated to insulate them from the long history of opposition their movement has faced. While the branding, strategy, and talking points are new, this is traditional white nationalism repackaged for the smartphone generation. Almost every single prominent Alt Right organization, from the National Policy Institute to American Renaissance, can trace its roots back to earlier white nationalist projects that have had long histories of terrorism. American Renaissance, which built its reputation by arguing people of color have lower IQs and are more aggressive than whites, has hosted guests like former KKK leaders Don Black and David Duke, various Holocaust Deniers, and Aryan Nations members. At the National Policy Institute conference you will see former neo-Nazi skinheads, which is not so surprising after the recent video of stiffed-arm Seig Heils to round out their 2016 conference.
Andrew Anglin lies on the edges of this pack of open fascists, often trying to take their snarky memes and racialist talking points, and use them to bring along traditional neo-Nazism. While the Alt Right has relegated itself to podcasts and online word diarrhea, neo-Nazis have had a long tradition of stepping out into the streets in an effort to strike terror into their neighbors. What Anglin hoped to do was to return the Alt Right to its long tradition of American white nationalist organizing: the main street march. The Alt Right, with a more educated demeanor and dreams of Washington power never wanted to resort to the embarrassing role-playing so characteristic of the “revolutionary” white nationalist groups often from the rural South.
Anglin’s call was neither new nor arbitrary, but came at the end of years of escalation that began when Richard Spencer, the Director of the National Policy Institute and founder of the term Alternative Right, moved to Whitefish. When Whitefish became his parent’s vacation home away from their busy lives in Dallas, Spencer moved there with his new Georgian-Russian wife Nina Kouprianova. He centered the NPI there, listing his mother’s property as their headquarters, and hoped to live a quiet life there half the year working on the various racialist book, podcasts, and websites he produces.
Starting in 2014, the relationship he had with Whitefish began to crumble, first during a fated ride on a chairlift at the posh Whitefish Mountain ski resort. Seated by chance next to neoconservative GOP strategist and lobbyist Randy Scheunemann, Spencer berated him for his foreign policy blunders. Spencer comes from an Old Right sensibility about foreign policy matters, one centered on an isolationist “America First” agenda. The confrontation quickly erupted into a controversy as Scheunemann spoke to the press about why a well-paid ski resort in Montana was allowing Spencer membership.
Spencer then headed to Hungary to hold a conference on white nationalism and “pan-European solidarity.” The conference was modeled after his NPI conferences, hosting an international audience and featuring speakers like American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor, Croatian New Rightist Tomislav Sunic, and Eurasianist nationalist mystic Alexandr Dugin. The Hungarian nationalist political party Jobbik eventually pulled out and Viktor Orban himself, under pressure from the socialist party, condemned the conference and declared Spencer persona non grata. Despite the advice of his fellow Alt Right consortium, Spencer continued his plans to host the conference and took a series of flights and train rides into Budapest to avoid arrest. Despite his Bond-like attempts at stealth, the Hungarian authorities descended on his pre-conference dinner and arrested Spencer, deporting him back to the U.S., banning him from entering the European Union.
When he returned his infamy had only grown and Whitefish had had enough. A local group named Love Lives Here had formed in 2009 in response to the showing of a Nazi film in the area, and they became an affiliate of the larger Montana Human Rights Network who had been known for countering the growth of the militia movement. A campaign was started to pass an “anti-hate” ordinance through the Whitefish city council to prevent Spencer from holding NPI events in the town. Spencer became irate, declaring that the town was trying to “make Richard Spencer illegal.” Spencer was even refused service at a local coffee shop as he waited for his drink with his then pregnant wife, and other business owners asked that he not return. City Councillor Frank Sweeney had contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center to solicit advice for how to build this ordinance at the time, noting that Spencer was creating his racialist media from their town. They ended up passing a more tepid “commitment to diversity,” one that Spencer tried to “troll” by publicly “endorsing” the call for inclusivity.
This back and forth allowed both sides to claim victory, but as they continued on, Spencer’s appeal was to a constituency of loud racists whom he had little evidence would support him in material ways. At the same time, this catalyst allowed for the Montana Human Rights Network to continue to organize in its highlighted relevancy, with a white nationalist neighbor showing exactly what was at stake.
The Year of the Alt Right?
Since 2014, Spencer’s profile has moved from Whitefish embarrassment to the national stage as scarcely a day goes by without an emerging story or profile on the most famous white nationalist in the country. 2016 became the “coming out party” for the Alt Right, taking their radical traditionalism into mainstream media discourse. During the post-election NPI conference, cameras from The Atlantic caught conference attendees using Roman Salutes as Spencer yelled “Hail Trump! Hail Our People! Hail Victory!”
While Richard was riding a wave of attention, his parents Sherry and Dr. William Spencer continued their investment in Whitefish. Sherry owned a rental property at 22 Lupfer Avenue along Whitefish’s historic commercial district. A local activist named Tanya Gersh began raising the profile of Sherry’s property ownership in town; specifically that Spencer had been using much of it as a base for his operations. While the Spencers had made it their second home, the slow burn of the Alt Right and its growing opposition finally made the relationship between the Spencers and the town crumble. According to the Virginia state corporation commission, Sherry’s multi-million dollar Whitefish home is still listed as the headquarters for NPI. Sherry began to get pressure to sell the commercial building, a prospect she considered; yet after Gersh offered to list the property herself, Sherry became incensed and published a Medium.com post about it claiming Gersh was “extorting” her.
“Whatever you think about my son’s ideas — they are, after all, ideas — in what moral universe is it right for the “sins” of the son to be visited upon the mother?” said Sherry.
That is hard for many to believe given Sherry’s own right-wing connections to fringe political candidates and her close relationship to her radicalized son. Her Facebook even included photos of her and her husband attending the H.L. Menken Club conference, a white nationalist gathering that was a precursor to the NPI conference. Shortly thereafter, Richard began publishing videos and blog posts attacking Gersh and Love Lives Here, calling them a “local hate group.”
It was about this point that the Internet exploded, and Anglin jumped into the lead. He began organizing a doxxing campaign of Whitefish residents, posting pictures of Jewish neighbors with golden stars emblazoned atop and the word “Jude” inscribed. Several images were stacked in front of the Burkenwald concentration camp, where so many Jews were piled into mass graves after gassings. Calls, emails, death threats, Yelp reviews, and a stream of harassment fell on Whitefish, creating a culture of frozen fear. Special derision was given to Gersh, who had to go into hiding and had her 12-year-old child targeted.
What set off Anglin was not only that the Spencers were facing push back, but that anyone of Jewish descent could be involved. The essentialist nature of race is central to white nationalism, but also that there is a key actor in the international opera of racial conflict. This comes down to the “Jewish Question,” the belief that Jews are a tribal group who use a superior “verbal IQ” and ethnocentrism to destroy nations. Anglin hopes to reframe the issue as one of “powerful Jews” attacking plucky Alt Right heroes, and that he needs to re-live Kristallnacht, the night with the German SA burned and looted Jewish businesses. While some of those they harassed were in fact Jewish, most were not, but none of that mattered since they labeled the behavior as Jewish, as they do with anything associated with left-wing politics, feminism, or cosmopolitanism. Many on the left have argued, erroneously, that anti-Semitism is on the wane, but the Alt Right has worked hard to make the reality of anti-Jewish hatred explicit, and Anglin’s effort further politicized those he targeted.
Love Lives Here continued organizing in the Flathead Valley, first creating a “menorah card” giveaway so that residents could put the image of the menorah in their windows during Hanukah. This act of solidarity would send a message of the shared experience of this harassment, because, in this case, Anglin and his army have labeled them all as Jewish. On January 7th, Love Lives Here organized a massive diversity rally with speakers and music, including letters of support from around the country. All of this was meant to soft-peddle the opposition by creating a show of community support, and it has helped the Whitefish community to become unified in opposition to the Alt Right. While Anglin wanted to build divisions in the community, the strategy has been to simply forge bonds and to strengthen the wall against these ideas. Anglin took the bigotry from something ephemeral to a tangible threat, and now there was an imperative to come together.
Anglin’s next move was to call for an armed march in Whitefish to threaten the Jewish residents and assert power. While Anglin has posted a filled-out permit for the march, it was actually only partially completed; revealing his bluff. Love Lives Here refused to engage directly with the neo-Nazis, so other groups stepped in to build on the united community base and to develop a counter-demonstration that can block Anglin. Montana Antifa began a public call for the demonstration, along with fundraising to meet the logistics, and the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World and its General Defense Committee also organized a large contingent, just as they have against white nationalist projects in places like the Twin Cities. Montana Antifa asked supporters to contact the hospitality base of the Flathead Valley to warn them about Nazis trying to rent accommodations. At the same time, Columbus Anti-Racist Action in Columbus, Ohio staged a protest action along with Showing Up for Racial Justice against Greg Anglin, Andrew’s father who has been accused of supporting his neo-Nazi son. All of this happened with the kind of support that they never would have received only months before, but as Anglin overstated his own ability to create a gun-toting parade, he provided the agitation that created a broad support for Antifa.
The threat presented by much of the Alt Right, Anglin includes, is one that hovers between real and fake, but has consequences for the sense of security that many that many built on the absence of open extremism. While the Alt Right was often reported as “diet fascism,” they were instead the real deal, except this time using “dank memes” instead of swastika banners. For Anglin’s war on Whitefish, he showed the Alt Right’s hand, which was to threaten people into inaction. This time, Whitefish chose something else.
While the Alt Right claimed 2016 was their year, it was also the year of opposition. Anti-fascist groups have grown exponentially, and the result of the Whitefish harassment campaign was a unified state and the acceptance of radical anti-fascist organizations willing to defend against a racist contingent at all costs. While the Alt Right has been unable to move rhetoric into boots on the ground, the anti-fascist left has, and Anglin’s bluff could be the deathblow to a white nationalist movement fumbling its growing pains.
When the day actually arrived, the only people to show up were the dozens of anti-fascist supporters brought by Antifa organizations, the IWW, the Queer Insurrection Unit, the Alliance for Intersectional Power, and the surrounding community of Whitefish. Patrols were conducted on the surrounding streets to see if there was a contingent of nationalists who promised to arrive anyway, yet none came. Anglin pulled back entirely when he saw his few supporters would be dwarfed by a community united.
A State Unified in Resistance
Anglin’s “day of action” reversed the power by revealing that one side was ready for a fight. The region created a series of responses to the threat of an organized racist attack, from the civic alliance of Love Lives Here to the direct opposition of the IWW GDC. The two organizations together presented a spectrum of possibilities, from the strengthening of community to the direct opposition on the street corner. It is likely this final step, that antifascists were committing to “no platform” principles, is what forced the neo-Nazis to cancel their busses. This anti-fascist project was stronger by the end of the day than they were before anyone they heard of the Daily Stormer, and that anti-fascist opposition does not suddenly disappear after the Alt Right retreats. While there may have been tactical disagreements between some organizations, a few of which did not want to publicly antagonize the Nazi contingent, in the end they came together in a complex web of support, with the militant anti-fascist organizations building on the foundation laid by the Montana Human Rights Network.
The adaptation the community made to the racist threat presents lessons for the ongoing confrontation with the white nationalism. The base building had been done not for months, but years, and the slow process helped to further radicalize a town that could barely pass an anti-hate resolution a couple of years before. Likewise, with two different approaches to the issue, with the softer community organizing from Love Lives Here on the one side and the direct confrontation presented by Antifa on the other, can have a synthesis. Without the long-term community engagement presented by the Montana Human Rights Network, there wouldn’t be a broadly unified community to resist the invasion, and without organizations willing to confront the protest directly, it could have still taken place.
The Montana Human Rights Network has been clear that they have received more hate threats and incidents since the election of Donald Trump than they had in years. But with this kind of behavior becoming commonplace, they have now created a model for how to unify a community and create an organized anti-fascist response that engages more and more residents, many of whom have no background in organizing.
What happens in Whitefish may provide a model for other small towns around the country. While Anglin has shown that the trolls can try to use traditional racist and anti-Semitic narratives to attack residents without a political backing, this climate of fear has also driven those same residents to action and to form a strong sense of community. As is happening around the country, the election of Donald Trump and rise of hate crimes has inspired new organizations to form and older ones to grow. In Whitefish, this has awakened the community and the entire state is becoming a veritable “no go” zone for the Alt Right that will have ramifications for Patriot and white nationalist groups across the state. As Anglin tries to scramble up his supporters, the anti-fascist opposition has become a wave that will make any further attempts at racialist organization fail before it begins.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How We Stop It (Forthcoming 2017, AK Press). His work has been featured in places like In These Times, ThinkProgress, Roar Magazine, Labor Notes, Make/Shift, Upping the Ante, and Waging Nonviolence. He can be found at ShaneBurley.net, and on Twitter @Shane_Burley1
In the first essayof this series, I discussed the relationship of several recent events (Brexit, the strikes in France against the Loi Travail, and the massacred of Oaxaca) to Liberal Democracy and what appears to be its impending collapse. This essay will discuss the core of Liberal Democracy: violence.
As a reminder, Liberal Democracy is a specific relationship between Capital and The State, and is currently the dominant form of government in the world. With it comes apparent great benefits, like peace, stability, protections of individual rights, and a general trend towards freedom.
But does it really? If so, why are the largest Liberal Democracies always at war with weaker—and usually non-white—nations? Why are so many unarmed Black people killed on the streets in the United States, why do so many armed police show up to anti-war and anti-capitalist protests? Why do so many Liberal Democracies have standing armies with large military budgets? Why so many prisons? Why so many police?
The answer is both deeply complex and also very simple. But to get there, we need to look at the matter of violence and our own relationship to it.
“Nasty, Brutish, and Short”
Thomas Hobbes famously wrote those lines in his manifesto on State power, “The Leviathan.” According to him, life in a ‘state of nature,’ –that is, outside a strong State– was violent, full of retributive justice and vengeance killings, civil disorder, greed, and chaos. Without strong leaders, people remained in a state of violence, unable to live peaceful lives and strive towards more than just subsistence living.
It was a grand work of propaganda, one which most of us have an awful time unraveling. Because we did not live in the past—and because there’s no one around from those times to interview—we can only ever build an understanding of what life was like back then by imagination, informed by ‘history.’
That ‘history’ is actually the story of civilization, and one that is constantly open to interpretation. The well-known adage that ‘history is written by the victors’ is actually a bit misleading. Most historians were involved in no wars of conquest and subjugation. Rather, they’re individual academics trained to narrate the past. And they disagree, often vehemently, crafting sometimes warring narrations about events and historical processes.
Historians themselves aren’t the victors; they’re just academically-trained storytellers. It’s the State and Capital (particularly through the media) who chooses which narratives to privilege and which narratives to silence.
Certain histories benefit the continuation of a civilisation, other histories threaten its survival. Histories which tell useful stories to the powerful get favored; histories which tell darker tales and remind of the violence perpetrated by the powerful are at best ignored but, more often, actively marginalised and silenced.
An example from the country I know best will help show this. The dominant history of the founding of the United States, taught to every child in every school, is that a group of religious Pilgrims settled on the eastern shores of North America in search of religious freedom. They were fleeing religious persecution, and came to America in home of a better life.
Every American knows this story. Few Americans think much about the pilgrims in question, the Puritan sect of Protestants who smashed statues in European churches, heavily persecuted and attacked Catholics and heretics, and for a little while possessed great power in England. When they were no longer in power, they in turn became the ‘persecuted.’ Many fled first to extremely tolerant Holland before being ejected for being too violent, and took a charter from England to colonize the ‘new world.’
This other part of the story doesn’t get told much. It greatly complicates the founding myth of the United States, and most children might be turned off from such details. And though such details are well known and considered historical consensus, none of the powerful people in the United States have any interest in correcting the public perception.
This same selection occurs for the history of violence and the State, as well. While violence certainly existed before Liberal Democracy, it has not gone away now. States have always been violent, and Liberal Democracy is not different. But Liberal Democracy has perfected a trick that previous forms of government never quite could.
That trick? Violence in your name.
Hobbe’s Leviathan deserves a little more examination. Examine the frontispiece from the original edition for a moment–The image shows a sovereign giant made up of millions of people, the model for the ‘commonwealth’ and later Liberal Democracy:
Liberal Democracies are generally ‘republics’ or constitutional monarchies. In both cases, the government is given the power to rule on behalf of the people. In such an arrangement, the leaders are elected to act as representatives of the entire public, either directly as in France or the United States, or elected as part of a parliamentary party as in the United Kingdom or Germany.
Whatever the government does, then, is considered to be the ‘will of the people,’ done for them and done on their behalf as if the people themselves have done it. Because the government leaders are elected by the people, the decisions of the government then act with what can only be described as a divine mandate.
Previous governmental forms sought sanction from religious leaders in order to gain this divine mandate. This is why European kings, queens, and emperors were crowned by Popes and Archbishops, and why the state priesthood in the Roman Empire had so much power. Though that mandate now comes from people rather than gods in Liberal Democracy, it still functions the same way.
Likewise, kings and emperors once sought the blessing of religious leaders to justify large military actions. Why? Whether or not the Christian god actually approved of those wars is not something we can know, and actually, it was probably never the point. Instead, leaders needed the approval of ‘god’ in order to win the support of their own people.
It’s hard to convince someone to go die for you, even if you’re offering money. And judging from the tales of my friends in the US military, soldiers are never paid well. To pay soldiers enough to justify the likelihood of death would drain the coffers of any king or government.
Religion can often succeed where direct threat or bribe fails. It’s a lot easier if you’ve got something to tempt them with, be it innumerable virgins in paradise, a full drinking horn in Valhalla, or reduced time in purgatory. And in each of those offers there is also a threat, because once the god/gods have given their blessing on a war through their priests, to not join, to not support or—much worse, to act against the war—is to go against your community and the divine itself.
Liberal Democracy (mostly) dispensed with the need to gain support for violence from what we normally think of as the divine. But it still relies on all the same sort of divine blessing that previous governments required. The ‘divine’ is now the people, the Leviathan itself, with the leaders at the head.
That is, we are the ones who grant legitimacy to State violence, even if we never say yes.
State Monopoly on Violence
I’ve used the word ‘violence’ quite a few times so far without defining it. In fact, we face a problem whenever we try to define violence if we live in Liberal Democracies—we can rarely agree on what actually counts as violence because of the State’s monopoly on it.
By ‘monopoly on violence,’ I mean simply this: the government is the sole legitimate agent of violence within Liberal Democracy. That is, agents of the state (police, military, etc.) are legally empowered to perform violence on behalf of the people, and all acts of violence not by the State are illegitimate (that is, illegal).
If you kill someone, or assault them, or take their property, or raze their house and burn their fields, you have used violence illegally, regardless of your reasons. The victim in this case may have been someone who slaughtered your family and poisoned your water and raped you: regardless of that, you have used violence illegitimately, and if caught will be subject to state violence. Only the State is allowed to do such things within Liberal Democracy.
What sorts of violence the State can use is supposed to be restricted by laws. Those laws, of course, are passed by the government (through representatives elected by people, or in rare cases by referendum), and though States often make appearances to obey these limits on its power, the State—being the only one empowered to enact violence–is always able to make exceptions.
The State, being the only legitimate agent of violence, is empowered within Liberal Democracy to enforce laws and punish those who break them. When the State enacts violence against individuals or groups within the Leviathan, it’s called Justice. Violence outside the Leviathan—that is, against other states and foreign individuals—often also falls into the category of Justice, especially in the last hundred years, despite the fact that laws can only apply within the State which makes them.
Justification for foreign wars doesn’t come from their legality, though—it derives solely from the assumed consent of the people, the ‘divine mandate.’ The State has all sorts of tricks to maintain that consent, including propaganda, religious rhetoric, identity politics and other ways to manufacture consent (including, unfortunately, the social justice framework, which will be addressed in my next essay).
Justice for Most
While all Liberal Democracies enshrine some concept of equality in their founding documents, none actually deliver that equality. In the United States, for example, though everyone (except felons and those who cannot afford identification documents, usually poor and people of color) have the right to vote (assuming their ballots are counted, assuming they can take time off work), it hasn’t always been the case. Originally, only white men were allowed to vote, and it took more than a century for women to be given that right.
The United States, like European Democracies and other former British Colonies, is mostly ruled by white men with money. In all these countries, white men without money are given more privileges by the powerful (note the language here: privilege is something given, not something inherent to the person) than others, in return for their support of the governing class.
Not all Liberal Democracies are white (but most are!); however, they all follow the same pattern of favoritism given to a lower class of people who resemble the people in control.
Those who are given fewer privileges tend to dislike having fewer. In fact, they tend to resent this greatly, and either demand more rights (as in the Civil Rights movement in the United States) or stop seeing themselves as part of society—unconsciously withdrawing from the Leviathan. Those in that latter case have less respect for the laws (many of which are designed to keep them in line anyway) and for the unspoken sacredness of certain institutions and modes of being. That is, they become criminal.
That’s not to say that criminals are all making conscious choices to reject the ruling class, or that criminal behaviour doesn’t have other causes too, like abject poverty. In fact, Liberal Democracies actually create the conditions which lead to criminal behaviour, including defining criminal behaviour in the first place.
And what does the State do to criminals? It uses violence against them, violence derived from its supposed ‘divine mandate’ from the people.
That violence takes many forms, and here’s where we can finally start to define violence. Police employed by the State are empowered to physically detain, assault, subdue, imprison, and even kill ‘criminals’ on behalf of the State. Of course, this is all before a trial has occurred to determine if the victim of state violence was actually ‘deserving’ of these actions (that is, was ‘guilty’ of a ‘crime’).
Of course, if the victim is dead, there is no way to determine their guilt or innocence, so in many places (especially the United States), killing a ‘suspect’ is actually a wiser choice than arrest for many police officers worried about civil rights lawsuits for wrongful arrest.
Since police officers are employed as agents of State violence, and since the State acts on our behalf, than the police, also, are acting as our agents of violence. When we call the police because of a robbery or assault, we are notifying the police that we would like them to find and enact violence against those who wronged us, rather than us doing so ourselves. And though there are many cases where someone else perpetrating violence on your behalf makes sense, it is the victimization of one person (or group) which then demands the victimization of those who perpetrated the violence.
In essence, the police act as agents of violence for others, no different from hired mercenaries or assassins except in one specific way: they are actually paid for and under the employ of the State, not by the victims.
Within Liberal Democracies, the people (who give the divine mandate to the State) are both separated from the violence the state enacts and also intimately connected to it at the same time. When police kill a murderer, we feel a sense of relief and of justice being ‘served,’ though we did nothing at all and may not even be able to know if the person actually murdered anyone. We become accustomed to believing that the police, because they act on our behalf, are doing good things, and except in rare cases we tend never to question their actions.
If anything, our relationship to them is similar to that of a fan of a sports team, overly identifying with players they’ve never met. “Our team won” means nothing at all, unless you are on the team or one of the owners of the sports franchise, yet that identification is unshakeable. That same identification occurs between us and the police and the military, particularly if we are within the class of people who are given more privileges than others by the government–and thus less likely to be on the wrong end of a police officer’s nightstick or assault rifle.
Violence is always subjective—that is, subject to our perceptions. A fist to the face is violent, certainly, but it’s less violent if we feel that the person deserved it, or if that fist was meant to stop more violence. A rape is violent, absolutely, yet those who are more likely to identify with the perpetrator than the victim are quick to re-conceptualize that violence through that same logic (how was she dressed, how drunk was he). Basically, we skew our judgments about justice according to our identification with those involved.
Liberal Democracy benefits greatly from this process. In fact, it encourages and abuses it, wielding our identifications and subjectivity as a bludgeon against enemies both foreign and domestic. As much as we all mitigate violence through identification with either the victim or the perpetrator on an individual level, we do the very same thing to a greater (and more destructive) degree with State violence.
Did any of the recent unarmed Black men in the United States ‘deserve’ to be killed by police? The answer, unfortunately, depends on whether or not any of us have done the work to see beyond our identifications with State violence. It also depends on whether or not we identify more with the interests the State is trying to protect by such murders, or with the victims. A white Capitalist who relies on the police to prevent theft from his business in a Black neighborhood is likely to identify with the police, rather than victim.
Do anti-capitalist protesters deserve to be beaten, pepper-sprayed, and arrested? That depends on how much we identify with the State and its protection of Capital and Property, or with the concerns and actions of the protesters.
And what about in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria—do the people there deserve to be killed by ‘our’ soldiers? Again, it depends on whether or not you identify more with the military or the people being killed by them, and for the majority of people in the countries whose governments are engaged there, the soldiers are more culturally, racially, and linguistically familiar than the victims are.
There’s one vital thing that none of these examples addresses, though. In each case, the question is whether or not the use of violence is justified, and this is always a subjective question. But what is almost never questioned is the role of the State (the police, the military) as agents of violence.
This is how Liberal Democracy is able to obscure its true violence from us, whether we identify with the unarmed Black men or the police officers who shoot them. Liberal or Conservative, ‘Social Justice Warrior’ or Right-wing racist, none actually threaten the State’s monopoly on violence, only question its uses and demand it be used to implement their vision of Justice.
And so Liberal Democracy has been able to carry on, unchallenged in its core violence, a lumbering Leviathan with tanks and guns, until the zero-sum game of Terrorism began.
The Upturned Table
Acts of non-state violence in the cultural and financial centers of Liberal Democracies have occurred for centuries, both from the ‘right’ and the ‘left.’ Regardless of their causes and justifications, so-called acts of ‘terrorism’ challenge the Liberal Democratic state more than any progressive or reactionary ever could.
The reason is simple: while Left-wing or Right-wing political movements can at any time take over the government, they never actually threaten the existence of the government. Communists on the Left and Fascists on the Right only want to claim the State for their own to enact their political goals. “Terrorists,”on the other hand, destabilize the State, forcing it either to abdicate its monopolistic claim on violence (which they’ll never do) or to further solidify its monopoly on violence.
That, unfortunately, is where we are now. Every Liberal Democracy has enacted anti-terrorist legislation and claimed new powers in order to combat the threat of non-state violence. To do so, they have necessarily had to curtail the freedoms granted to the people they rule over, and no longer bother much even with the appearance of law and constitutional guarantees.
One can argue, as Georgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt all have, that this process started much earlier than the recent ‘wars on terror.’ Liberal Democracies began to pass ‘State of Emergencies’ all throughout the 20th century, particularly during times of war, but not until World War II did these exceptions start to become the rule.
It was a Nazi jurist, Carl Schmidt, who first defined for all later governments the justification for the suspension of law. “Sovereign is he who decides the exception,” he wrote, asserting that it is the very fact that a State can suspend all rules in order to survive that grants the State power, not the supposed ‘divine mandate.’
From the actions of recent governments, it’s clear Liberal Democracy took his words to heart. “Free speech zones” in the United States, individual interdictions (including house arrest) from attending protests in France, suspension of freedom of movement and just-cause in the name of anti-terrorism in the UK and elsewhere—Liberal Democracies have responded to terrorism precisely as Fascist theorists would have urged them to.
And just as we tend not to question State violence against those we do not favor, we are now caught in an even greater trap. As terrorist actions continue, we are faced with the apparent choice of either supporting the restrictions of our freedoms ‘for our own good,’ or risking our lives when the next bomb or mass shooting happens. And since acts of terrorism only increase whenever the State goes to war, the cycle is likely to accelerate, pushing all of the Liberal Democracies into crisis for which, unfortunately, Fascism has always offered an answer.
It’s one we must not accept.
Next–“Assuming the State” (on Social Justice, Human Rights, and the Crisis of ‘The Left.’)
(for more on Leviathan and recent events, see Heathen Chinese’s essay at The Wild Hunt)
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.