Monthly Archives: November 2011
Today I taught to Korean students Sam Mende’s American Beauty, one of those films whose popularity was only really rivaled by the backlash against it a few years later. In many ways, I think the films beauty was in the way it undermines the bourgeois romantic trappings it gives itself. Obviously, the movie for all its gloss and hyper-exact sensibilities has a sloppy middle class family message with Lester’s monologue on at the end trying to wring the sentimental family gloss to an otherwise nihilistic tail with some only thinly veiled cliches. This film cries out for the a Lacanian (phallic mother, oedipal sublimation) and vulgar Marxist (Lester and Caroline as alienated from each other through tedious production of capital as well as alienated from human relationships themselves) readings. Those rubrics won’t be particularly illuminating because a college junior with either an introduction to philosophy or an introduction to critical theory course could write them. Hell, a blogger for the Village Voice could probably write a hip less jargon-laden version of exactly that.
No, what I want to focus on is the film’s own almost dialectical undercutting of its own romanticism, because in lesser’s supposed enlightenment after his brains are splattered against the white wall, he still sees himself as fundamentally concerned with his relationships fulfillment to him. His last vision is one of narcissistic and self-indulgent interiority leaving his family in the ruins that they did not entirely make. It is the picture whose romanticism also shows romanticism nihilism because it literally offers no way out. The moment Lester realizes his dream–his roses–was in his house the entire time, he is shot in the head. This absolves him of the responsibility of cleaning up the mess. Furthermore, his alienation and the implicit violence in his family remained unresolved.
In many ways, American Beauty is an excellent movie despite its impulses–it is hard to say where Mende’s intended this dialectical undercutting–this negative dialectic–into his film deliberately. If the sentimental films he made after it are any indication–with the notable exception of Jarhead–Mende’s aesthetic is problematically middle brow. Yet, perhaps like Balzac and Dickens (or the science fiction writer Gene Wolfe) it is often a conservative or middle-brow disposition that allows enough of the contradictions of its own position into it to truly illuminate the social and cultural problems of a given moment. In this way American Beauty succeeds precisely because of its failure.
Love can only consist in failure…on the fallacious assumption that it is a relationship. But it is not. It is a production of truth. - Alain Badiou
“He who has loved and who betrays love does harm not only to the image of the past, but to the past itself.” -Theodor Adorno
“Naturally, Love’s the most distant possibility.”- George Bataille
“What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” -Friedrich Nietzsche,
So onto something positive in a way that one must go only in bravery: for years I thought love was just another word for hard work. I know that on the neurological level, its dopamine plus oxytocin plus luck. Yet this is hardly satisfying, for love is not necessary for the survival of the species. Sex alone is enough for that. Still for reasons opaque to us not matter our framework, be it the evolutionary psyche or Hegelian spirals of history: we think narratively, and thus love has to be understood in process. So what is the non-vague truth in love: not in an analytical sense, but in a process sense. How can one understand it. I suppose that’s why a precise definition is so hard outside, because processes are fluid. Definitions are not.
Forever, the process of love, in all of its manifestations it is not clear that love is merely a process. It is a sign without one single signified, but perhaps a myriad. It is not a empty sign, but an overfull one that we deal with in English. So love is not a relationship with a person–it is both noun and verb, felt and expressed, desired and consumed. A relationship is always in the foreground, but if it is the relationship itself that is love then I agree with Badiou: there can only be failure there. Love has patterns, but like the pattern one sees in the form of poetry, the patterns are known more by aberration than fidelity. It is the rupture of the daily life and the subsuming into another daily life that makes love have any meaning. It is the fact that dopamine makes your stomach sink and the oxytocin makes you mourn the lack of someone’s touch. In this there are a thousand mystifications that come sincerely.
So there is there such a thing as unconditional love? This would seem to be a category error as love is nothing by conditions. One may accuse me of equivocation, but the word itself equivocates. The concept moves and defies the definitions it holds one too. Love is not desire for desire implies lack. Love is not a relationship because a relationship is predicated on a totality of interaction between two people. Love is not the foolish trick to reproduce the species because there is no need for such a trick. No love can be coterminous merely with desire, for Lacan seems right when he asserts: “desire’s raison d’être is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire.” The circular loop that ends in frustration, not love.
“Beauty is the promise of happiness.” says Stendhal. Then perhaps love is the promise of beauty, a promise that is rarely explicit, and a promise that is often not kept.
Perhaps then the Greek categories: ἀγάπη (agápē), ἔρως (érōs), φιλία (philía), στοργή (storgē), and ξενία (xenía) are better as our mulled wine since the impulses of all of these are the truth of human relationships more than the relationships themselves. To be felt and to be done, to act and to know, and to subject and object to. The truth of love regardless is that it calls the lie to our taxonomy of emotions and actions, and in that process we see ourselves as we truly our: beings in motion defined as much by others as ourselves. For even our biology is produced by interaction as much as being.
“Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanised work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanisation has such power over a man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself. The ostensible content is merely a faded foreground; what sinks in is the automatic succession of standardised operations. What happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped from by approximation to it in one’s leisure time.” -Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception
Thanksgiving is today in the United States, a holiday that I enjoyed due to the family time and the relative peace. I forgot until this afternoon that it was Thanksgiving when I was talking to my depressed girlfriend who was spending her first Thanksgiving in Korea. The rhythm of my life had moved so completely away from the holiday that while it was one of my favorites in its celebration (but not what it celebrates) that I literally forgot about it. But my fondness for it is simple: beyond the family time, it is Americans only major mostly secular holiday that is actually celebrated by most people in the US, yet the mythology around Thanksgiving is hardly worth recounting as it is up there with Columbus Day in misleading and highly problematic celebrations. In fact, I have a hard time squaring the actual history with my enjoyment of an otherwise secular and fairly decent family holiday. For example, Mike Ely’s writings on Thanksgiving at Kasama:
In 1641 the Dutch governor Kieft of Manhattan offered the first “scalp bounty”–his government paid money for the scalp of each Indian brought to them. A couple years later, Kieft ordered the massacre of the Wappingers, a friendly tribe. Eighty were killed and their severed heads were kicked like soccer balls down the streets of Manhattan. One captive was castrated, skinned alive and forced to eat his own flesh while the Dutch governor watched and laughed. Then Kieft hired the notorious Underhill who had commanded in the Pequot war to carry out a similar massacre near Stamford, Connecticut. The village was set fire, and 500 Indian residents were put to the sword.
A day of thanksgiving was proclaimed in the churches of Manhattan. As we will see, the European colonists declared Thanksgiving Days to celebrate mass murder more often than they did for harvest and friendship.
Or this bit of information from the Speed of Dreams:
he pilgrims are glorified and mythologized because the circumstances of the first English-speaking colony in Jamestown were frankly too ugly (for example, they turned to cannibalism to survive) to hold up as an effective national myth. The pilgrims did not find an empty land any more than Columbus “discovered” anything. Every inch of this land is Indian land. The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. They introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod — before they even made it to Plymouth — was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians’ winter provisions of corn and beans as they were able to carry. They were no better than any other group of Europeans when it came to their treatment of the Indigenous peoples here. And no, they did not even land at that sacred shrine called Plymouth Rock, a monument to racism and oppression which we are proud to say we buried in 1995.
The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men.
About the only true thing in the whole mythology is that these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their first several years in “New England” were it not for the aid of Wampanoag people. What Native people got in return for this help was genocide, theft of our lands, and never-ending repression. We are treated either as quaint relics from the past, or are, to most people, virtually invisible.
The end of the day there seems to be more myths than not:
Myth #7: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to celebrate the First Thanksgiving.
Fact: According to oral accounts from the Wampanoag people, when the Native people nearby first heard the gunshots of the hunting colonists, they thought that the colonists were preparing for war and that Massasoit needed to be informed. When Massasoit showed up with 90 men and no women or children, it can be assumed that he was being cautious. When he saw there was a party going on, his men then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. (8)
In addition, both the Wampanoag and the English settlers were long familiar with harvest celebrations. Long before the Europeans set foot on these shores, Native peoples gave thanks every day for all the gifts of life, and held thanksgiving celebrations and giveaways at certain times of the year. The Europeans also had days of thanksgiving, marked by religious services. So the coming together of two peoples to share food and company was not entirely a foreign thing for either. But the visit that by all accounts lasted three days was most likely one of a series of political meetings to discuss and secure a military alliance. Neither side totally trusted the other: The Europeans considered the Wampanoag soulless heathens and instruments of the devil, and the Wampanoag had seen the Europeans steal their seed corn and rob their graves. In any event, neither the Wampanoag nor the Europeans referred to this feast/meeting as “Thanksgiving.” (9)
Myth #8: The Pilgrims provided the food for their Indian friends.
Fact: It is known that when Massasoit showed up with 90 men and saw there was a party going on, they then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. Though the details of this event have become clouded in secular mythology, judging by the inability of the settlers to provide for themselves at this time and Edward Winslow’s letter of 1622 (10), it is most likely that Massasoit and his people provided most of the food for this “historic” meal. (11)
Myth #9: The Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn.
Fact: Both written and oral evidence show that what was actually consumed at the harvest festival in 1621 included venison (since Massasoit and his people brought five deer), wild fowl, and quite possibly nasaump—dried corn pounded and boiled into a thick porridge, and pompion—cooked, mashed pumpkin. Among the other food that would have been available, fresh fruits such as plums, grapes, berries and melons would have been out of season. It would have been too cold to dig for clams or fish for eels or small fish. There were no boats to fish for lobsters in rough water that was about 60 fathoms deep. There was not enough of the barley crop to make a batch of beer, nor was there a wheat crop. Potatoes and sweet potatoes didn’t get from the south up to New England until the 18th century, nor did sweet corn. Cranberries would have been too tart to eat without sugar to sweeten them, and that’s probably why they wouldn’t have had pumpkin pie, either. Since the corn of the time could not be successfully popped, there was no popcorn. (12)
Myth #10: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.
Fact: A mere generation later, the balance of power had shifted so enormously and the theft of land by the European settlers had become so egregious that the Wampanoag were forced into battle. In 1637, English soldiers massacred some 700 Pequot men, women and children at Mystic Fort, burning many of them alive in their homes and shooting those who fled. The colony of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony observed a day of thanksgiving commemorating the massacre. By 1675, there were some 50,000 colonists in the place they had named “New England.” That year, Metacom, a son of Massasoit, one of the first whose generosity had saved the lives of the starving settlers, led a rebellion against them. By the end of the conflict known as “King Philip’s War,” most of the Indian peoples of the Northeast region had been either completely wiped out, sold into slavery, or had fled for safety into Canada. Shortly after Metacom’s death, Plimoth Colony declared a day of thanksgiving for the English victory over the Indians. (13)
Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.
Fact: For many Indian people, “Thanksgiving” is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, “Thanksgiving” is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship.
So there is nothing much to celebrate in the reality of the situation. You may ask, “Skepoet, so if we dropped the mythology, we refocused on the natives and perhaps reparations, and kept our turkey and dressing and family holiday, would so think it was salvageable?”
The short answer is related to the Adorno and Horkheimer quote above is that the time demarcation around the holiday makes it seem draining and artificial as it is just a reminder of the work as alienated time. Now this is no where near as serious as the signs of colonialism hidden in the holiday, but it is very much a part of our experience of the holiday. It is almost a reminder of the destruction of the traditional family not by emancipatory choice but by the literalized alienation of factory life, then service sector economies and the transience imposed on our daily life. So Thanksgiving ends in a orgy of consumption which increasingly supports a large chuck of the bloated retail sector, so the holiday becomes a prelude not for a reminder of family, but an orgiastic web of spending for another deracinated and secularized religious holiday. The spectre of that alienation also reminds us of much.
In my heart though as a man born in the lower-middle class with working class parents, I do actually enjoy the simple family meal at the heart of this otherwise shameful celebration. However, through the critical eye, one sees all the problems in our rendering of the holiday. So I will have a nice meal with my girlfriend and write a letter to my family, but I will go on my normal daily life. The possibility and joy of giving thanks is worth having another day for, but this is hardly what Thanksgiving is actually about.
Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 17
Interview “Anna GreenFlame” of the Eternal Harvest tradition. This interview occurred over a couple of months and was stalled to several weather instances and personal instances on both parties. Therefore, there was often one or two weeks between questions and this is referred within the interview.
Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?
Anna Greenflame: I was raised Baptist by my southern family. This was nominally fundamentalist, but in the late ’60s/early 70s before it had become politicized. It was a little southern church where everyone was kin to everyone else, and a supportive place.
In college, in the early 1980s, I converted to Episcopalianism because of their rituals and because they validated reason and openness and did not condemn people who were not Christian.
I started to follow New Age trends in the 1990s in a continuing process of self-discovery. When I met my husband in 2000, he practiced trad Wicca. I enjoyed the formal rituals and loved the sexual egalitarianism of the theology. I met other trad Wiccans, and they seemed extremely secure and grounded in themselves, and I wanted to be like them. The tradition that my husband founded and that I practice is called Eternal Harvest.
Skepoet: What is your academic background?
Anna Greenflame:I have B.A. in Anthropology with a concentration in archaeology, and an informal minor in English romantic poetry from Duke University (informal because Duke did not have “minors” at that time). I have graduate work in library science but did not complete the MLS.
Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?
Anna Greenflame: Their interaction with each other: my academic studies certainly influenced my decision to convert to Episcopalianism. Meeting so many diverse people at Duke, I could no longer accept that the Jews, Muslims, etc. I was meeting were going to hell. I could not reconcile the archaeology and biology I was studying with any literal interpretation of the Bible. The Episcopalian church valued reason as well as faith. Most of the members were academics.
However, there were more subtle influences going on. I chose to study archaeology because I had an irresistible desire to immerse myself in the past. I was looking for something “back there.” English romantic poetry scratched a similar itch. I remember looking at an Attic red-figured vase of the Maenads and Dionysus and fancying myself dressed as a Maenad, with hair in ringlets, running over the hills. I did not see myself worshiping a Goddess, yet I was attracted to the Cretan snake-woman images and intrigued by the theories of Marija Gimbutas that were all the rage at the time.
My real love for the Episcopalian church — and I went to a “high” church that was very formal — was the ritual. “Smells and bells” is what we called it. I became a lay reader because it was natural to see myself dressed in robes and standing before people doing something religious.
So I think I chose my academic studies based on the same longings that I found fulfilled when I discovered trad Wicca 20 years later. (I had flirted with eclectic Dianic Wicca in the early 1990s, but it did not appeal to me.) My academic background has certainly informed my practice and my ability to evaluate texts and to teach Wiccan history.
Skepoet: Do you see your tradition as rooted in British Traditional?
Anna Greenflame: You know, good question; but I’m not sure how to answer that. We cast circle in a formal and standard way, pretty much the same prescribed way every time and anyone of anything but the most eclectic Pagany-Wiccany person would go, “oh, that’s Wiccan.” However, how we cast circle does vary from what is described in the Gardnerian BOS. We have no recognized lineage from Gardner; there *is* lineage from Gardner, but not alternate gender and therefore not acknowledged by their standards. And there are some things we do, chants and gestures and such, that are unique to us and given to us by our own Trad’s contacts. Tell me what you mean by “rooted” in BTW and I’ll be able to answer that more precisely.
Skepoet: Rooted as in stemming from, but not necessarily solely from, traditional Brit Wicca in either Gardnerian or other from?
Anna Greenflame: I think all trad Wicca ultimately derives part of its form from BTW, so in that sense, yes, I think we do.
Skepoet: Are there any trends that you see between Wiccans and the larger pagan community?
Anna Greenflame: I’m sorry to be obtuse! But I don’t understand the question, i.e., trends in the sense that “many / most Pagans follow a Wiccan-ish model in terms of creating sacred space?” or “Pagans and Wiccans in general often feel great reverence for the past?” — in other words, do you want me to comment on what we have in common, or how we are diverging?
Skepoet: Actually, I am interested in both and wanted to see where you would go with it. Let’s start with divergence and then maybe more to commonalities.
Anna Greenflame: So, we were with Wiccans and Pagans.
I’m going to philosophize a bit. I perceive a general tendency toward nostalgia in many human cultures, including our own and those from which we derive. There is a sense of the Good Old Days — boy, *they* really knew how to do it back then. So we get pagan Romans complaining about the current generation and how things were better “back in the day,” and the same in the Greek world; we get Greeks looking upon Egypt as The Great Mystical/Magickal Storehouse of All Religous Knowledge and Skill.
I think this impulse drives many people who adopt the label “Pagan.” I think it probably has been there all along, but I fancy, based on a couple of articles I’ve read, that modernism and the Industrial Revolution, and the Romantic reaction to it, fanned that flame until it burst into a roar in the 18th and 19th centuries. I think Hutton demonstrates that pretty clearly.
At the same time, I am a mystic, and I believe Otherworldly forces are constantly interacting with us and inspiring us, so it’s not all just psychological.
Anyway, I think the occult societies that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries were part of this trend toward “recovering” and “preserving” “the wisdom of the Ancients,” culminating in the Golden Dawn. Gardner took part in it, although I think he himself was not driven by nostalgic impulse so much as he recognized that other people were, which is why he took pains to make the lore that had been passed down to him (which he married with his own ceremonial, Thelemic, and anthropological stock) sound old — he was shrewd enough to know that people expected that.
As valuable as Wicca and Paganism are in their own right, whether old or new or a mixture of both — I do not believe for a minute they would ever have taken off the way they have were it not for the glamour of doing the same things as our forebearers and ancestors. I believe that sense of continuity was and is a major driving force in the development of Wicca and now of later non-Wiccan Pagan traditions.
You see it all over. Wiccans thought they had the Real Old Unbroken Stuff. Then everyone realized that was not so much the case. You can look back at the work being done in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and onward here in the US. There was a drive to purge the “recent” ceremonial stuff out of Wicca and go back to a purer Pagan Celtic or Pagan Norse ethic.
So then you get reconstructionists, you get people who are driven toward an even “PURER” form of worship. Hey, look at this archaeological dig! Look at this manuscript! We’re doing the REAL old stuff now!
It’s behind the grandmother-initiation stories and the glamour of the fam-trads, too.
The same impulse forms so-called “traditional Witchcraft” in the Robert Cochrane vein. I’m about to be adopted into a group of that form of witchcraft, and the practices are awesome and powerful — my Wiccan trad began incorporating some of them about ten years ago — but I don’t believe for a minute that it’s any more of Ye Anciente Olde Authentick Wytchcraft than BTW-derived traditions.
I think this lust for the Old, and the correlation of Old and Historical with Valid and Authentic, has gotten out of hand and is driving a wedge between Pagans. My perception is that Wicca is now the ugly, unwanted, red-headed stepchild of Paganism and that many reconstructionists assume an air of religious superiority. I do not see this trend going away because no one is addressing that original impulse toward the old, the ancient, and why do we view it as more authentic, and what does that say about us and our real spiritual longings.
I’m currently reading Carlos Ginzburg’s “Ecstasies” book (subtitle: “Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath.”) I’m looking at the accounts he brings to the table from all over Europe of spontaneous astral travel on the Ember Days and on Thursdays — traveling to the “good society” of the Goddess or to battle for fertility — and none of it resembles anything that anyone I know of is doing. And yet, it’s our best evidence of really authentic European Witchcraft practices. Who’s reconstructing those practices? No one as far as I can tell, because *those* witches were born to do, by being born in the caul, or at certain times of the year — the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany — or other circumstances that cannot be duplicated at will. And the travel they were doing was full-on etheric body astral travel, not just mental travel via the active imagination, but cataleptic trance, not so easy to achieve. And who is honoring the Ember Days? Who thinks of Thursday as the day for Witchcraft? — nothing to do with Thor or Jupiter, either.
What I think we all have in common is that we’re doing the best we can to communicate with non-Abrahamic spiritual entities in a way that (a) works and (b) is at least archetypal if not demonstrably historic. I also think we have that powerful nostalgic impulse in common. Where I think we differ is that most Wiccans now understand that what we do IS more archetypal rather than historical, and reconstructionists have not got to that understanding of their own practice yet.
Skepoet: What are your primary concerns in practicing Traditional Wicca? How important is cultus or community for example?
Anna Greenflame: One of the primary concerns is to remain authentic to the practices and energy connections of our particular Tradition without being stifled, or promoting a stifling practice. One of the ways we do this is to mandate that second degree students begin to explore some other pagan/Wiccan/Witchcraft/magickal tradition; and then to become eligible for third degree in our Trad, you have to actively study and/or receive initiation into somebody else’s Trad. NOT for us to steal from it or try to marry it in to what we do, because we don’t and would not want to (we have a hard enough time managing the flow of inspiration that comes to us in EH practice), but for the same reasons that college students go abroad to study: to broaden one’s horizons and to encounter the Mysteries we all share in a different way and different context.
So we do define ourselves as being orthopraxic rather than orthodoxic. It’s our initiatory rituals, some of which are unique to us, and the particular ways we construct sacred space using chants, gestures, etc. that come from inspiration that set us apart. One of our concerns is that we are growing and yet have not sat down and said, okay, this is what makes Eternal Harvest vs. Northwind or Black Forest, etc. We expect to be doing that this fall.
Community is important to us. First, our trad community, where we as Eternal Harvest members swim in the same Cauldron, so to speak — the bonds we share with each other. Second, the wider, non-Trad community is also important to us. I think we feel ourselves to be ambassadors for Traditional Initiatory Wicca, demonstrating the best of what it can be: a structured way to encounter the Mysteries and experience that transformation. So we have to practice what we preach! We are good friends and allies with the non-Trad groups in our area, and we come together twice a year to hold camp-out gatherings — ShadowHarvest in early November, and Mayfaire in early May. Eternal Harvest sponsors them and hosts them, but with major support in terms of publicity, donations, and volunteer labor from the two big pagan stores in our area and the tribes that have grown up around them. I’m not going to say there is no tension in our community, but by and large it’s minor, and most of us both in Eternal Harvest and out of it avoid ego trips, head games, drama, and the resultant Witch Wars because most of us have “been there, done that” and hate that kind of crap.
Most of us in EH have abandoned the mindset that you have to have a lineage to be an initiate in the broader sense or the inner sense. My husband, its founder, is a holdout on that opinion formally, although he will concede privately that so-and-so independent eclectic is an awfully good Witch.
Skepoet: What do you see as British Traditional Wicca relationship to Golden Dawn?
Anna Greenflame: Well, that’s hard for me to answer, since Eternal Harvest is not British Traditional Wicca. I know what’s in Gardner’s online BOS and various books, and that’s it. What I practice is considered “Traditional Initiatory Wicca” — a line that does not have lineage that BTWs would recognize as BTW, but that derived out of BTW (with changes along the way) that they recognize as being serious, formal, structured approaches to the Craft and the Mysteries that have attained their (our) own lineage and egregore.
However, I think structured Wicca of any kind can certainly claim ceremonial and lodge magicks as its Father, with the Pagan and earth mysteries as its Mother. Our elemental correspondences, our ways of drawing pentagrams (except for my Trad, which does it differently) and in fact the idea of drawing invoking and banishing pentagrams, our “guardians of the Watchtowers” (a nod to Enochiana), the formal way we set up and consecrate sacred space is derived from Golden Dawn practices and, obviously, Solomonic magic as well. Perhaps the Golden Dawn came into Wicca by way of Crowley. I know that Sorita d’Estes and David Rankine have some books on this; I have not had time to read them. And members of Gardner’s New Forest group were Rosicrucians and Gods know what else, probably some Golden Dawn offshoots as well.
I think in a broader sense, both the Golden Dawn and (in the next generation), Gardner were tapping the same bone — getting inspired by the same spiritual current. However, the Golden Dawn rituals are quite cerebral, in my experience, operating mainly on the mental place; and Wiccan rituals — once the circle has been set up — are ecstastic, operating best on the etheric and astral plane. It’s a very different vibe. I have taken a Neophyte initiation into the Golden Dawn and attended other Neophyte initiations and a couple of equinox rituals. They feel very different from any Wiccan or witchcraft ritual I’ve ever experienced.
Skepoet: How do you feel about relationship between reconstructionists and Wiccans in the larger pagan community?
Anna Greenflame: I think I answered that in my first reply a few weeks ago. I don’t see us as having much relationship. I think reconstructionists look down on Wiccans and take a purist and intellectual, left-brain, materialist approach to worship, whereas my best Wicca work takes place when my left brain is functioning just enough to remember where I am in ritual, and to light the candles.
Skepoet: Do you think that gap is widening or lessening?
Anna Greenflame: I don’t know. Probably widening. There are not a lot of reconstructionists I know. I am friends with a group of ADF members who vibe to the Norse culture (so they are “Norse Druids”), and I would say the distance between us has grown, although that may be due to neutral personal things, like school and lifestyle issues — they came to a recent gathering and had a good time, and we have each others’ backs. I do like their ADF rituals. I don’t think they look down on us, they know us too well. But at the same time, I think even the ADF motto — “why not excellence?” — defines “excellence” as “scholastic.” No, it’s not. I do believe wholeheartedly that when one is stating something as fact, as in “The Irish Celts did xxxxxx” then one is obligated to make sure that one is not pulling “facts” out of one’s ass a la poor Edain Mccoy’s infamous Irish Potato Goddess. However, I also believe that there is no way to achieve some pristine state of factual purity when it comes to the past. I once worked as a docent in a historic home slightly over 200 years old. We have the original house inventory, letters, paintings, newspaper documentation, logs, eyewitness documentation etc. of the builder and his family and there is STILL a lot we don’t know or that is completely ambiguous. For that matter, I can easily see where lore and custom that was current in my childhood in the 1960s is being changed, repackaged, and presented as “authentic” nowadays in a way that is very different than was was truly happening in the 1960s. So I’m suspicious of reconstructionist efforts in terms of their accuracy and purity and defining “excellence” as that.
Excellence to me means, have I achieved an encounter with the Otherworld in such a way that my soul’s evolution, and that of the spiritual beings who walk with me, has deepened or progressed? Have I transformed and become deeper, wider, better, stronger? Has my spiritual effort brought me something that helps me be a more effective priestess, healer, teacher, wife, etc.? That, to me, is excellence.
Skepoet: So experiential development would be more important than historical development then?
Anna Greenflame: To me, it is, and I think that is true of everyone in my trad. We all like history, and again, when we speak of history we want to speak it factually. But our praxis is not limited to that which is historically-attestable. When we find a historically-attested practice we might sit with it and see if it fits, or if it can fit with a modification, but most of our praxis outside of standard Wiccan stuff comes from inspiration.
We do a lot of Ancestor work, and not just Ancestors of our blood — our literal grands and uncles and such — but Ancestors of the land and Ancestors of Spirit. And we think we get both information and energy from them.
Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Anna Greenflame: No, I think I’ve run on at the mouth enough. Thank you and Blessed Be!
(This blog is by my long-time friend Calixto L., we were both on the right at the beginning of the last decade and both have moved to the far left. Calixto and I used to debate on George W. Bush, he would defend it from a neo-conservative/libertarian perspective and I would argue from a paleo-conservative against the Iraq War and the War on Terrorism. Yet time has changed us both, and this is Cal’s story. Cal grasp of history is acute, and it informs his point of view. Increasingly, actually, as he moves left. While Calixto may be akin to being a militant left-liberal or even something like an anarcho-Technocrat along the lines of Murray Bookchin placing him in a different camp than your host. I found this very illuminating).
I have discussed some of the sources of my bend sinister recently, roots which go way back. And I mean way back.
First was living in Mexico. This produced a certain radicalization for a variety of reasons.
- While I’ve been an advocate of realist foreign policy most of my life, especially with regards to anti-Communism (anti-Stalinism), living in Mexico can be quite an eye-opener when it comes to one’s view of imperialism. After all, Mexico is a prominent victim of imperialism from the North. While visiting Texas, and really growing up in the US, I would get an idealized image of The Alamo, and the fight for Texian independence. Living in Mexico, you learn the other side of the story. Instead of heroic freedom fighters you learn, even in “The American School” about the traitorous rebels of the Alamo, and also how the US “stole” (well bought at bargain basement prices, at bayonet point), half of the land area of Mexico, including valuable oil, gold and silver deposits which helped fuel the US’s rise to power, and its economic growth. You learn of other interventions as well, such as the one by Woodrow Wilson in Veracruz. Of course, the US was not the only imperialist power to bully Mexico around. The French of course, invaded and took over most of the country, installing a puppet Hapsburg Emperor of Mexico for instance. That Cinco de Mayo which degenerated to an excuse for drinking (much as St. Patrick’s Day), is a celebration of a victory of Mexican forces against the French invaders. To top it all off, of course, was Mexico’s own war of Independence from imperialist Spain. Realism in foreign policy, yes, imperialism, no. (I also got something of a taste of this living in Hawaii, where photos of the last Queen were fairly common, and knowledge that the US had seized control of this once independent island chain was mentioned in school. No sign yet of the independence movement occasionally encountered in the Islands today though)
- La Reforma and The Mexican Revolution. These are also taught in “The American School” which I attended, in the half of the day that was in Spanish. During this period, I learned of the Reforms (Reforma) established by the liberal, and full-blooded Indian President Benito Juarez (a radical, whose name was contributed to another famous politician of the next century), often called Mexico’s Abraham Lincoln. Juarez fought the conservative oligarchy and its alliance with the Catholic Church which at the time held large, tax-free lands, in a form of Throne-and-Altar Conservativism (literally Throne, with Emperor Iturbide), pushing many costs of taxation and corvee labor onto the disenfranchised peasantry. The Reform followed the fall of General Lopez de Santa Ana’s dictatorship, and limited Church ownership to it’s own buildings used for operations, and abolished and distributed the large estates the Church held, as well as most of the lands held by the municipalities. They also abolished Ecclesiastical courts which still existed in Mexico as a holdover from Spanish feudalism. Juarez also established freedom of religion, and other civil rights and the separation of church and state, and brought the military under civilian control. We learned also of the abuses of the hacendados, the development of debt peonage, the phenomenon of the company (or hacienda store), the betrayal of land reforms, governmental corruption and other causes of revolution. (Later I would learn of many of the same tactics used in the US itself, as in the song “I sold my soul to the company store”, and the experiences of sharecroppers). These things certainly angered me and I could see the justice of their cause. I also learned of the reforms of the Constitution of 1917 (though many seemed weird to me). Still, these were radical steps, and ones I sympathized with. The economic rights in the Mexican Constitution of 1917 jived with much of the exposure I had to European Social Democracy from reading the papers and living with and befriending many European expats both in Singapore and Mexico.Another problem I saw was the extreme wealth disparity in Mexico. I could live in a very elite neighborhood in a rather palatial home, with maids; and ride the bus to school past slums and vast poverty. It was hard to go shopping anywhere without beggars or street vendors hustling to make a Peso, often poor peasant women with their small children besides them. The differences could be seen wherever we went for vacation; emphasizing the grinding poverty of the Third World I had seen in parts of Asia. I knew of families who abused their household staff, and other abuses of power. The disparity did bother me, even though I was a privileged American living in the best part of town. To this day the extreme disparities of the sort I saw in Latin America (and in parts of Asia, but I was more aware of it at the age I was in when visiting Latin America) is something I’ve opposed. The abuse and low status of Indians was also apparent and disgusting.I could see how basic sanitation, and potable water was a problem, in part because no one would pay for proper water processing; but also because it made good business to sell bottled drinking water, and for the poorer, tanker trucks of “agua potable” going door to door. Basic services that we take for granted here, just didn’t exist, or if they did, they did only for the rich. Even the poor in the US can expect potable water right from the tap. In Mexico the rich had to boil and freeze their water like everyone else, or drink bottled spring water.I additionally saw the corruption rampant in Mexican society. The police would come to the door yearly to collect contributions for the “benevolent fund” with the unstated threat that failure to pay meant no police protection. I knew of ways that the elites twisted the rules, or made bribes to gain advantages. Later in life I would read from Hernando de Soto’s excellent books on the informal economy in Latin America. There was also a LOT of bureaucracy that had to be navigated for anything. Even shopping at the department store meant a clerk had to fill out a form, which you took to a register area to have endorsed, which you took somewhere else to pay. Corruption and rampant bureaucracy were plagues.One other radicalizing experience in Mexico was the sheer level of pollution. From old photographs and paintings one knew that two twin volcanoes (Popocateptl for instance) were supposedly clearly visible from the city, yet due to pollution, I never saw them. I had chronic bronchitis from the air pollution. The city was originally built in the middle of a lake, that lake is mostly long gone, and found far from the city. The roots of my environmentalism were forged in my experience in Mexico, especially for air pollution.
- Diego Rivera, ‘nuf said. His artwork was a strong visual influence on me and he remains one of my favorite artists.
- One of the results of the Revolution was a strong anti-Clericalism. Open air religious meetings are formally illegal, secular schooling is required, and other forms of laicisme. Along with influences from France, this strongly influences my views of a secular state; even though I would not go to the extremes found in those countries. However, the US never had much of the sort of strong powerful Church seen in both countries as part of the Ancien Regimes.It doesn’t hurt either that I have, on my mother’s side stories of my Grand Orient Mason great-grandfather who was stridenly anti-Clerical, to the point of even getting in fights with priests; and the family support of Eloy Alfaro who pursued anti-Clerical policies and expropriations of Church property in Ecuador. My grandmother’s stories about Alfaro, and civil wars between Alfarista liberals and conservatives were also formative, but not directly relevant.On the other hand, we did have films of, and studied the Spanish Civil War, and had some hints of the Cristero War in Mexico in the 1920s, where murder of priests and nuns, and the destruction of churches simply went too far for my tastes even then; and put a bad coloration on the anarchists and the Spanish Republic. My general take at the time, and held for a while, was that the Civil War was a battle of barbarian beasts, with Francoite Fascists and Republican “Anarchists” not being too much different in approach and behavior, though the films shown did extol the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
- The role of bandits in the Mexican Revolution didn’t really help my view of revolutionary activity. Between the excess of the Soviet Revolution, stories of the barbarities inflicted by Castro in Cuba (even though my family initially supported him against Batista and my father went to watch him and his troops enter Havana), the Terror in the French Revolution, and the bandits of the Mexican Revolution made me see Revolution as romantic, but dangerous. Reformism, even Fabianism seemed infinitely preferable even when I was sympathetic to the goals of the revolution.
- A fear of inflation and hyperinflation. I experienced it first hand. I watched the devaluation of the Mexican Peso, the rising prices in Pesos, and the fall of the Peso from like 12 Pesos to the dollar to two hundred pesos and downward in free fall, until they had to create a “New Peso” and knock a few zeroes off. I also remembered the inflations of the very late 1970s, and 1980 under Carter and Reagan, and the oil shocks. Young experiences can be formative and this experience of inflation certainly was.
- Anti-authoritarianism rooted in Mexican revolutionary rules against re-election, but also warnings about not being able to express ourselves freely or criticize the government even as Americans, because unlike America such free speech could be dangerous. I had some taste of this in Singapore, but I never had to be warned by teachers (in the Fourth Grade no less) to be careful about what we said and to whom. Like Singapore, Mexico was a de facto One Party State. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (how oxymoronic) had been in power since 1917. It was like Ford and the Model T, but in politics: You could have any politician you wanted, so long as he was from PRI.
Other sources of radicalism, came from Science Fiction. I’ve mentioned before the influence of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and its mechanized, post-scarcity future economy. Star Trek was another such influence as well, thanks to Gene Roddenberry. A book of the sci-fi cover art of Vincent DiFate discussed ideas including a description of a future city from Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon (which I only found and read recently), where citizens had guaranteed incomes and educations, and a computer balanced the economy and controlled the money supply to match demand. (A concept developed it turns out in his earlier novel For Us the Living whose Social Credit concepts have been recently influential, something my Canuck friends may be somewhat familiar with). I read a lot of H.G. Wells, and his politics are well known. Heinlein, and Clarke also wrote of polyamory, and relatively free sexuality (in Stranger in a Strange Land, and Childhood’s End, and Songs of Distant Earth), while Asimov’s later works such as The Robots of Dawn had a similar impression. (So did, of course, the antics of Captain Kirk, and Commander Riker).
R. Buckminster Fuller and others also influenced some of my thinking, though indirectly, as did Carl Sagan. His Cosmos both as a TV series, and as the book influenced me strongly towards his secularism. Einstein was a hero of mine of the time, and his views were fairly secular. Fuller’s economic ideas aren’t exactly “conservative.”
My interest in environmental issues, but also nuclear power had me see the effects of bureaucracy and regulation could cause major issues, at least one writer on the subject, Petr Beckmann’s discussions of the classism behind some environmental activism was certainly influential, as it offended my more egalitarian concepts.
A book on world sexual practices discussed the sexual freedoms (and decriminalizations) seen in the Code Napoleon, and in the early USSR, which I saw as favorable compared to the puritanism of the US. The book specifically discussed how consensual sexual relations were, as far as Marx and Engels were concerned, not the business of the State, and I agreed then and still do now. (how the Soviets became so puritanical under Stalin and his successors, or China under Mao was both a mystery and another reason I found them less than appealing).
Wondering what all this hullabaloo about Communism was, I actually read up on the Communist Manifesto, and the 10 point program at the end didn’t seem to be too much of a big deal. No child labor? Progressive income tax? Minimum wages? Didn’t we already have all that stuff?
So here we have someone who by age 17, and going to college who was:
- Secularist and anti-Clerical
- anti-bureaucratic and anti-centralization and allergic to command-and-control regulation
- anti-puritanical and against state involvement in personal relations, and more or less an advocate of free-love (and not long into college, Polyamory and other revolts against conventional sexual morality)
- Pro-Basic Income Guarantee
- Anti-oligarchical and anti-aristocratic (very pro-1789. Liberte, egalite, fraternite, citizen!)
- Anti-authoritarian and deadly opposed to One Party rule.
- Deciding issues based on logic and reason and argument and fact, not religion or opinion (e.g., my reasoning on the issue of abortion is a whole story to tell in itself on that, nothing terribly simplistic about the casuistry involved there).
- Strong believer in social justice and equality of opportunity
- Strong belief in meritocracy (via Confucianism)
- sympathizer with European social-democracy, especially France, and only strengthened ironically by reading Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man where he does discuss some fairly radical social and economic ideas.
- Profit sharing with employees, and even options for all (via discussions with my dad about how companies try to get executives to work hardest for the success of a company); and also ironically, seeing at the time ads for Avis being owned by their employees, “workers control of factories” didn’t seem outrageous, or require revolution. My father’s visits for business to Yugoslavia made worker coops sound successful and workable as an alternative.
- Never been opposed to unions, and believed in union-management cooperation for mutual benefit. (And via some studies in history, interest in “corporatism” and “syndicalism”
- Strong believer in feminism. The idea of someone not doing a job because they are a woman never computed in any way (thanks to Plato)…and who thought that companies should provide day care for their workers like they provide health care. Besides no one can read Lysastrata seriously and think women are weak.
- someone who believed strongly in the UN as a road to peace, and took part in the model UN, with special focus on IAEA and Disarmament
- and, an environmentalist, co-founder of my High School environmentalist club, and helped organize 1990 Earth Day events.
Yet soon became a “libertarian” and a right winger?
That story isn’t quite so hard to explain, as it mostly boils down to becoming convinced that this approach attained those goals more efficiently than the primary US Democratic Party Liberal or the European social-democratic “socialist” (as I understood it) approach.
The start of my descent can be traced to my friend Jason Goodman’s radio talk show “Speak Out” which I helped do the research and was a regular guest. We discussed free trade and “The Buying of America” which was a fairly hot topic of the time with Japanese imports, Toshiba, Sony buying Rockefeller Center, and so forth. I was assigned the free-trade position and I turned to my father and Uncle, both involved in business and trade for advice on sources. My uncle turned me onto Milton Friedman as a source, and even lent me Capitalism and Freedom while I rented Free to Choose from the library.
Well, remember that blurb in Di Fate’s book about Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon? Well there I found that exact idea. Friedman went on about a guaranteed income, via a negative income tax, both in the older book (1964) and the later one (1980)! And how I was more efficient than the current welfare system, how it could avoid some of the disincentives to work of the current system, and unlike rationing or food stamps, gave people cash which they could decide how to use themselves on what they wanted. And best of all, it could be geared to get everyone above the poverty line. Plus it needed little bureaucracy, something I knew was a plague in “Eurosocialism” and in Mexico; not to mention the Soviet Union.
I was hooked. Then he discussed school vouchers, how everyone in the district or state would get exactly the same school funding per pupil (as I was aware of the disparities in school district budgets and the effects this had on opportunity), providing everyone with an equal funding of education (privileged people having extra to spend on top being glossed over), and freedom of choice.
As a Monetarist, Friedman had a heavy focus on inflation, which was already a concern of mine, and his solution? Something so simple you could replace the Federal Reserve with a computercalculating how much new money is needed to match growth, or simply following a simple rule. He did a good job of showing inflation as a monetary phenomenon.
Much of the rest of the books rail against bureaucracy and inefficiency (and it wasn’t long until I was reading in college about Iron Triangles and regulatory capture), ways to get around this and have the same results, like Pigovian taxes.
Beyond this Horizon in a nutshell, along with a general anti-authoritarian libertarian, and anti-bureaucratic flavor….I was hooked.
Friedman was my gateway drug to the Libertarian Right, just as Reagan’s anti-Communism was my gateway to the Right in general (Pushed along by Orwell). Rand’s attacks on the anti-technology New Left (in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution was my first book of hers that I read), started to seal the deal. And so the drift to the right began, though again, not anything like the Right that is so strident today in the GOP. (And I had initially described myself as a Moderate Republican, fiscally conservative as I believed in balanced budgets, more efficient government, etc), and socially liberal (oh boy was I socially liberal), and anti-Communist, which was increasingly an anachronism. And which, I meant pretty much Anti-Stalinism. I wasn’t aware of any other form of “Communism” being practiced or argued for than Stalinism or its variants, besides the actual works of Marx and Engels. By my freshman year in College I had also read up on some Anarchist thinkers, but the bad taste left in my mouth by the film of murdered priests and nuns, the effects of The Propaganda of the Deed in the US and Europe, and a general sense of the whole thing needing the kind of nosy, intrusive small-town atmosphere to make sure no one shirked, no one took more than they needed, and a concern about the practicality of coordination of production made that seem to be a non-starter.
(Nota bene, it was things like Guevarra’s shootings without trial at La Cabana fortress, Soviet Psikuskas and invasion of Afghanistan, allegations of Soviet and Vietnamese chem warfare against rebels, the Berlin Wall, the Purges, etc. which made me anti-Communist more than anything else. Though I can recall arguing with my very leftist Grandmother about Cuba, and pointed out that gays were being put in camps there to prevent the spread of AIDS and how horrible that was. It is authoritarian, State Communism I opposed. Though again, some of the actions of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War alienated me as well).
Soon Rand drew me further and further right. Thanks to her I read Von Mises and suddenly “Socialism” was impossible a priori anyway. But the LVMI and folks turned me off strongly with their pro-Confederate nonsense by 1992. One thing I liked about Rand was her rejection of tribalism and racism, period, though her ambivalence on the Civil Rights Act and the Libertarian stance on that act always bothered me. (I think people should be treatedly justly and with something like due process even in private life, and the arbitrary bullcrap of racism and discrimination offends that intuition of mine strongly, and people should have free opportunity, which discrimination violates. I’ve had long arguments about that Act with libertarians, and saw it rise up again with Rand Paul in 2009/2010).
I also never jived much with country club Republicans (remind me of oligarchs too much), or religious right Republicans (too authoritarian, and too anti-freedom) anyway. Meanwhile the results of 2008 have made me question many of the economic assumptions; while much of the rhetoric of the Tea Party made me reexamine my values and repelled me.
I never bashed unions, and always believed people have the right to form communes, or mutual associations or whatever so long as they didn’t force others to go along with it.
So now I drift to where I was at 17, a bit wiser, but with most of the same values, and researching more and more writers, from Howard Scott, to Neno Vasco, to Kropotkin, to re-reading Marx (again), some of my old college textbooks on Feminism, going over early Heinlein, being fascinated by his support for Upton Sinclair’s run in California on EPIC, and the EPIC platform being similar to the recovered factories in Argentina and elsewhere. I question the rationality of some of the market operations to say the least. I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson; and Thorstein Veblen, and Proudhon, and looking at everything with an open mind. I will go where my readings and conclusions take me. My father and I have discussed the success of coops in northern Spain he had visited such as Mondragon; or those in Bologna and other parts of Italy that my brother in law and father visit.
Though those bullet points from 17 remain foundational ideas/issues/values that I still return to again and again. The Jesuits have a saying that give them a child until he is seven and they will determine what they are like for the rest of their lives afterwards. These experiences of mine go a bit beyond the age of seven, but are pretty influential.
Where all this puts me, I don’t know exactly. Somewhere on the Left I suppose, now that the limited remnants of Friedman’s negative income tax, the EITC gets bashed and demonized, as I still believe in a basic income guarantee. My interest in cooperatives also leans me leftward I believe. Though how my interest in Technocracy (I find it fascinating that many of my specific ideas from those early years are almost precisely from Technocracy Inc.). A Scott/Fuller/Clarke vision of post-scarcity abundance making communism, socialism and capitalism all obsolete is still my long-term vision of things.
Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 16
Mari-Anne Mahlau on Minoan Wicca.
Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?
Mari-Anne Mahlau: I grew up Catholic but came to Wicca through introspection and a series of seemingly unrelated events that exposed me to it. It seemed to fit perfectly with my view of the divine as well as my personal philosophy that I had come to after years of floundering, looking for a connection with the divine since Catholicism seemed too misogynistic and unable to grow and change with time.
It was like arriving home.
Skepoet: What is your academic background?
Mari-Anne Mahlau: I have a BA in Psychology, a minor in Childhood Education from CUNY Lehman College. I also have a year of graduate work in Journalism/Public Relations with Iona College in New Rochelle, NY.
Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?
Mari-Anne Mahlau: I am a big fan of Carl Jung, as are many of the modern pagans that I know. I think my background and degree in Psychology overlaps with my religion quite a bit in helping me to understand human behavior, archetypes, etc. It has helped me with group dynamics working in coven and non-profit arenas. Being on the board of a Wiccan tax-exempt, non-profit for a number of years, understanding of human behavior and interaction came in handy. It also came in handy as a High Priestess training new initiates.
Skepoet: I have some specific questions that I asked as those. Which tradition of Wicca do you practice?
Mari-Anne Mahlau: I practice Minoan Fellowship Wicca which is a subset of the Minoan Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which in turn are branched off from Gardnerian & Welsh traditions of Wicca.
We are as such heavily influenced by the format of the British Traditionalist Wiccan ritual style.
Skepoet: Have you seen your tradition develop or change since you entered it?
Mari-Anne Mahlau: I’ve seen covens and other groups organize into bigger non-profit groups for the purpose of wider community, but other than that, not much.
Skepoet: Do you think that sometimes people over-interpret magic in terms of psychology?
Mari-Anne Mahlau: Ooh, that is a good and loaded question. I think it’s possible and that some people write off magick as solely a psychological construct. I have dear friends who believe this way. They feel the same way about the gods and goddesses. I don’t completely agree. I think even if it did all occur in our psyche, there is so much we do not understand about the nature of the psyche and whether it is connected to the soul and thus to the universe at large. It’s just another roundabout way of legitimizing magick. But I don’t think its origin lies solely within ourselves.
Skepoet: Many pagans I have talked to express some anxiety about how the economic downturn will affect their crafts/traditions. Do you have any such concerns?
Mari-Anne Mahlau: I, of course, have concerns about the economic downturn on a mundane level. Spiritually, the only way it might affect myself and my family is that we might not be able to attend festivals and large gatherings. but the recession has been going on quite awhile. We just have to tighten our belts to save and attend less of those events. No money is needed to practice one’s religion unless you wish to travel to be with others. I live in the NY metro area, so that isn’t a big issue.
I don’t see it affecting my tradition or practice in any other way.
Skepoet: How does the Minoan tradition relate to other pagan groups, particularly non-Wiccan ones?
Mari-Anne Mahlau: Well, at least in our immediate group of covens, many of us travel to festivals and events where other modern pagans gather and socialize as well as share some of what we can of our paths with each other. Also some of us (like myself), have partners from another pagan path. My fiancee is Asatru.
Skepoet: Anything you would like to say in closing?
Mari-Anne Mahlau: Just that it’s been a pleasure being able to participate in this. I wish you luck with your research. Thanks for allowing me to participate. Blessings to you!
Skepoet: Blessings to you as well. Thank you for your time.
Marginalia and Religious Ethnography Botched: Another Interview with Keith418 on Hegel, Religion, Occultism, and Political Ideology
This is the second interview in a series with Keith418. The first one is here. Keith418 is one of the most controversial figures in modern Thelema. His interviews on the defunct Thelema: Coast to Coast were often rigorous and demanding, yet highly contentious. Keith418 has also documented thinkers on both the radical right and the far left often comparing those thinkers to the problematic thought in the Occult community. The parallels are discomforting to all involved. This interview goes into territory of both my interview series so it will be considered part of both.
Skepoet: I suppose we should discuss much of from our private discussions. Your interview is one of the most referenced on my site and generated a lot of controversy among the Thelemites I know. Why do you think this is?
Keith418: There is a certain kind of person involved with Thelema who just gets excited about ANY mention of magick, Thelema, or Crowley they happen to come across. The mere mention of these subjects is something they seem to find somehow validating – usually no matter what the context. I suspect this phenomena is in effect here. I also think that there is a great deal of tension that exists around the question of whether Thelema really is about egalitarianism and altruism or not. Anyone who pokes at that problem, or contradiction - however you want to characterize it – is going to draw some notice.
The secret fear many people seem to have is that, try as they must, Thelema just cannot be rehabilitated; that it is intrinsically “dangerous” – and “dangerous” in all the ways that nice, PC, middle class people would judge something to be a threat and a danger. The Thelemic community loves the people who lay that inarticulate, but still palpable, fear to rest just as it despises the people who reinvigorate their anxieties and who summon their worries back into new forms. They hate being reminded of their conflicts.
This community really is very thin-skinned – which I think it a mark of its basic fragility; a kind of fragility that reveals itself in denial and in organizational and personal turmoil created by its astounding degree of ongoing and epidemic cognitive dissonance. This sort of sensitivity to criticism and analysis means that anyone who consistently points to the community’s problems and short-comings is seen as a pariah. When you combine that with the usual unwillingness to look at class and the limitations it places on people, and the way it is often so determining, I can’t say I really shocked at the reaction. I’d be more surprised if it didn’t get that reaction.
Skepoet: You and I have been talking about despite at the anger at the “system” very few people are willing to look at the problems of middle class values themselves. For example, you and I both have been openly musing on whether #Occupy wants to move beyond the prior status quo or just get bribed back into accepting it. There seems to be a lot unaddressed in the we are the 99% slogan for all its strengths. What is your current take on this?
Keith418: On the one hand, the ’60s left protests were very much about fighting against the middle class – its prejudices, its conformity-orientation, its lack of life and constriction. Youth advertising plays into that – the pendulum in Americans advertising invariably swings between the laboratory and the carnival. The status quo is mom and dad and their boring, authority positions and values. But how does one craft a criticism of the middle class – and its banalities and trivial preoccupations – in the wake of the counterculture of the ’60s and
’70s? Does one reiterate it and seem dated? Or does one craft some new critical approach? If the middle class is under attack from the banks and from globalization, then is it an ally to the cause? Or still an
A friend noted that the current movement seeks to save the people of the middle class, but not the middle class itself per se. I see what he’s getting at here, but I think this twist sidesteps the question.
Skepoet: Recently I read something you wrote a few years ago comparing Herbert Marcuse to James Burnham. In brief, why do you think these two thinkers are really important to revisit at the moment?
Keith418: Both describe the way ownership no longer necessarily means control – that control has passed to highly trained managers, bureaucrats, consultants, experts, and other forces that go beyond mere ownership- as it has been defined in the past. How do we manage the managers? Who, in the end, manages them? Do the managers manage themselves? There is an incessant push, that both writers noted, towards giving this layer more and more decision-making power and authority. On the one hand, there is the fear that they will abuse this power. On the other hand, these same figures promise to give us what we want and sustain what we have. In a highly technologically advanced society, with a dense population, this managerial class rises to the fore – either through government, through corporations, through academia, through the media, through non-profit groups, or through blurry and complex combinations of all of these fronts.
Often managerial forces subvert the “political.” Political choices become replaced with a managed process governed by experts. They make the choices and we go along with them. Do people want more politics? Or do they want to, instead, sit back and let this class provide for them and cede power to it in the process? On the one hand, there is a kind of weariness associated with political demands. Being politically active and informed takes work and requires sacrifices. Isn’t it easier to just let the managers handle it? The managerial elites often project themselves as disinterested parties who have attained a measure of scientific objectivity. This can’t be accurate, but their power depends on people believing it’s true and trusting them.
I don’t see a criticism of the managed society developing on the right or on the left. Instead, people pick vaguely defined managerial forces they wish to see prevail, but the structure and core operating beliefs
of these experts is seldom acknowledged or challenged. Many people on the left just want more humane and caring management – which is quite a different demand from that of the people themselves being allowed to make the most important decisions that effect their lives. There are those on the paleocon right who evidence a kind of cranky antipathy towards the managerial elites, but these folks still don’t seem truly ready to abandon the technological society these same trained experts have provided for them. The neocon right has always cultivated its own managers and think tanks and has always been quite ready to enjoy what a “big government” made of empowered managers can provided. For both the left and the right, taking power back from those they have ceded it to will take effort and energy. Who is ready to start that process and what sacrifices will they make to get there? The alternative is just to insist on better management – and not to attack and question the power and role of the managers at all.
Skepoet: Would you say that right and left are largely irrelevant positions?
Keith418: Well, even if I did, what would be gained? Why do people still cling to these terms and think and act as if they were, indeed, still profoundly meaningful? Since the ’60s – I’m thinking of Karl Hess and
even before him – many have tried to point out differing, and more determining and accurate kinds of dichotomies. Centralized vs. decentralized approaches, authoritarian vs. individualistic choices,
top-down vs. bottom up styles. Why, after all this time, do people keep using “left and right”? What is concealed, what unrevealed truth is carried in these terms that continues to prevent their exhaustion?
I once, quite by accident, incited a distant supervisor to lecture me – harshly – about the “correct” use of these terms. He was more adamant about what constituted the “real left” that he ever was about any work related issue we were dealing with. I think this speaks to how the terms still have meaning – even if we wish they didn’t and would seek to replace them.
Skepoet: What do you think remains unresolved at the core of the idea of left and right then as the fact that categories do not seem to leave us would indicate? In my mind, when categories won’t go away despite the existence of more precise semantic categories, there is something unresolved at the core of the idea. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but I suspect you approach this similarly, although it may be for different reasons.
Keith418: Well, what are the origin of the terms? They go back to the days of the French Revolution. What remains unresolved from that point? What questions were asked then that still haven’t been answered – and which our political definition still, somehow, entail? I am reminded of the apocryphal story of Zhou Enlai being asked about the effects of the French Revolution. It was, he was said to have answered, “too soon to tell.” Even if this wasn’t what he was referring to, the essence of this response is still both haunting and illustrative.
To me, these terms represent differing sides on the nature of the dream of shared human life, the great motivating metaphysical dream that floats above us and lives through us as we seek to create a world
“A waning of the dream results in confusion of counsel, such as we behold on all sides in our time. Whether we describe this as decay of religion or loss of interest in metaphysics, the result is the same; for both are centers with power to integrate, and, if they give way, there begins a dispersion which never ends until the culture lies in fragments. There can be no doubt that the enormous exertions made by the Middle Ages to preserve a common world view exertions which took forms incomprehensible to modern man because he does not understand what is always at stake under such circumstances – signified a greater awareness of realities than our leaders exhibit today. The Schoolmen understood that the question, universalia ante rem or universalia post rem, or the question of how many angels can stand on the point of a needle, so often cited as examples of Scholastic futility, had incalculable ramifications, so that, unless there was agreement upon these questions, unity in practical matters was impossible.” – Richard Weaver
Occultism – if it’s about anything – is about exploring the nature of these metaphysical dreams. It means revealing them – to the extent that they can be wrestled from concealment through struggle – and discerning the ways they shape us and the events around us. Magick is – at times- about summoning into being the myths and mythic, heroic figures that inhabit, fulfill, and direct the dreams and represent the ideals. Nothing, so far, has been so climatic as to provide alternatives to the terms “left” and ‘right.” Isn’t this more remarkable than anything else?
Skepoet: Do you think that the question of metaphysics is “mystified” and assumed? You and I have talked about class as one of things people are hesitant to truly discuss, but I would say metaphysics is more profoundly avoided as if its nonsense. Materialist metaphysics does have implicit assumptions and there are different versions of it. When a philosophical or religious tradition won’t look at metaphysics, I often feel like they are trying to hide an axiom.
Keith418: People can try to avoid looking at the origins of their values, but it’s seldom an effective way to go through life for anyone who wishes to be really deeply engaged – or who even just want to know what they are doing without being taken advantage of.. The folks I know who refuse the metaphysical investigations, but who see themselves as “politically involved” anyway, are just partisan hacks. Partisan hackery is widespread, but it’s increasingly pointless and meaningless. It’s become something like sports fandom. People cheer on one side or the other, but it’s a ridiculous, mindless, empty exercise.
The brighter of my friends on the left follow Hegel is seeing that the governing metaphysics of left politics is nothing more than a secularized Judeo-Christianity. Hambermas says the same thing explicitly.They acknowledge Carl Schmitt’s dictum that all salient political ideals are secularized theological principles. If people deny this… Well, what can be done with them or said about them?
Why would anyone want to hide an axiom? Is it because we can no longer share the irrational faith that these axioms depend on, when we still desperately need the axioms anyway? Is it because beliefs about the nature of human beings as “rational animals” have been exploded, but that we are still operating as if they haven’t been? Can science and reason still bail us out of the mess that that science and reason have, in many ways, created? If this really worried you, would you, want to discuss and examine the axioms?
“Modern rationalism rejected biblical theology and replaced it by such things as deism, pantheism, atheism. But in this process, biblical morality was in a way preserved. Goodness was still believed to consist in something like justice, benevolence, love, or charity; and modern rationalism has a tendency to believe that this biblical morality is better preserved if it is divorced from biblical theology. Now this was, of course, more visible in the nineteenth century than it is today; it is no longer so visible today because one crucial event happened around 1870-1880: the appearance of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s criticism can be reduced to one proposition: modern man has been trying to preserve biblical morality while abandoning biblical faith. That is impossible. If the biblical faith goes, biblical morality must go too, and a radically different morality must be accepted.” — Leo Strauss
Strauss is correct here, and it has grave implications for the left. You can understand why this is true even without being a Straussian.
Skepoet: This brings me to a question: Do you think the fear of “capitalism with Asian values” that Zizek has been speaking about recently or the old Trotskyist fear of Mao made this apparent? Or is there something else going on there. I have noticed that both Zizek and Badiou have explicitly defended the Christian tradition in the past few years making many of my leftists friends nervous, yet they see the first universalist vision in Saint Paul. (I don’t, actually. I see it in Mahayana Buddhism, but that’s a different story). Yet there seems to be a profound uncomfortableness with “Asian” leftists like Pol Pot, Mao, Ho Chi Min, or even the modern Naxalites. Do you see this as related? Furthermore, do you see any trends in the occult community that parallel this?
Keith418: I’ve always thought that the Trotsky people were susceptible to varying kinds of ethnic chauvinism. This isn’t uniformly the case, but any resistance to looking at non-western ideas and values is going to be problematic. After having been the oppressors in a colonial situation, it’s ironic to see Westerner’s worried about themselves being colonized – or too influenced from ideas originating in the Third World.
The European Enlightenment still under-girds the nature of the left and its definitions and assumptions. How can clinging to these models, insisting on their applicability and righteousness not, in some way,
turn into something that looks like chauvinism? Is this a bad thing? Or is it a natural expression of a given people and their history and experience? Is it ironic given that these same ideologies purport to
share an internationalist perspective?
People’s inner conflicts and cognitive dissonance becomes most acute when they try to reconcile, or simply live with, contradictory metaphysical principles. The Marxists of the ’60s were all about heightening the contradictions. well, is advancing and strengthening he contemporary welfare state revolutionary, or is it reformist? Are current leftists eager to spot contradictions – or are they eager to avoid recognizing them? I think the intellectual rigor of the left declined with the advent of identity politics. I would be heartened again to see people looking at the contradictions that multiply around us, but I fear few have the stomach for it at this point.
Skepoet: We have talked about Buddhism as a kind of soft-cultural capital before, but there is a movement of the Baby boomer left that ran to those ideas when Mao and Che didn’t work out for them. However, this has given Buddhism of the Western convert in America a particular flavor that ignores a lot of more conservative teachings on say sexuality. I see in both a want to psychologize everything. What do
you think is at root here?
Keith418: I think psychologizing anything speaks to certain, needs, obviously, but there is a lot of room to judge varying psychological interpretations of, say, politics. For example Paglia posits:
“Modern liberalism suffers unresolved contradictions. It exalts individualism and freedom and, on its radical wing, condemns social orders as oppressive. On the other hand, it expects government to provide materially for all, a feat manageable only by an expansion of authority and a swollen bureaucracy. In other words, liberalism defines government as tyrant father but demands it behave as nurturant mother.”
This is certainly a psychological analysis, but it’s not one my friends on the left often appreciate. We can find ways to probe their psychological needs that will make the Buddhists you are talking about profoundly unhappy, can’t we?
Skepoet: To focus back on Buddhism: Egalitarianism seems radically at odds with the very notion that there are Enligthened beings. In that, it seems interesting that the forms of Buddhism popular in the Europe and in Asia are largely forms where this is either extremely emphasised to the point of seeming unattainable as in some Tibetan Buddhist guru-worship or is frankly denied as still being possible such as Pure Land Buddhism. This move is even more hollowed out in convert Buddhism which seems to reactively put an more egalitarian spin on the Pali cannon.
Do you see this as a linked contradiction?
Keith418: I think they’d make the argument that everyone has the “potential” to be Enlightened. This is an “equality of opportunity” argument. We are all equal in “potential” and if we all don’t take advantage of that potential in the same way, or at the same time, who cares? But the difficulties arise when we ask why that potential – so often proclaimed and insisted on – isn’t more in evidence. Modernity is really about lowering the bar. If everyone is already a Buddha or an adept, then why seek after Enlightenment? Why bother with any of it at all? What is more noxious to egalitarians: the idea that there really are Enlightened beings (whose very existence gives lie to their pretenses), or the easily observable fact that everyone isn’t as wonderful as they claim?
We run smack into modernity – and earn our contemporaries disdain (or worse) – when we seek to reverse course and raise the bar. Start demanding excellence and insist on higher standards and watch what
happens. The neopagan and magical bitterly resent anyone who resists the call to lower the bar. This is why beginner books and “dumbing it all down” are seen as so necessary.
On the other hand, only the strong can protect the weak and if everyone’s opinion is equally valuable, then we may well need authorities more than ever – to help us correctly choose between all the “equal opinions.” Goethe once declared, “I too believe that humanity will win in the long run; I am only afraid that at the same time the world will have turned into one huge hospital where everyone is everybody else’s humane nurse.” Does the left really want this hospital? If so, it will need elites to run it and manage it. This,to me, is the Hegelian Endstaat. Thanks, but not thanks.
Skepoet: Well, I am not entirely a Nietzschean, I think his genealogical approach could be useful here: Why do you this lowering of the bar happens? Is it universal to universalist ideas? For example, earlier I said that I think Mahayana Buddhism was the first attempt at a universality in religion in a real sense, but it also eventually generated ideas like “Buddha nature” and the non-contradiction of samsara/nirivana. Do you think modernity and the radical Enlightenment was undone by this same sort of impulse? How do you see this play out in the OTO for example?
Keith418: You can’t harmonize anti-Enlightenment and Enlightenment ideologies without one side losing – and I said, this seems to be a zero-sum game.
“The classics thought that, owing to the weakness or dependence of human nature, universal happiness is impossible, and therefore they did not dream of a fulfillment of History and hence not of a meaning
of History. They saw with their mind’s eye a society within which that happiness of which human nature is capable would be possible in the highest degree: that society is the best regime. However, because they saw how limited man’s power is, they held that the actualization of the best regime depends on chance. Modern man, dissatisfied with utopias and scorning them, has tried to find a guarantee for the
actualization of the best social order. In order to succeed, or rather in order to be able to believe that he could succeed, he had to lower the goal of man. One form in which this was done was to replace moral
virtue by universal recognition. The classical solution is utopian in the sense that its actualization is improbable. The modern solution is utopian in the sense that its actualization is impossible. The
classical solution supplies a stable standard by which to judge of any actual order. The modern solution eventually destroys the very idea of standard that is independent of actual situations.”
- Leo Strauss
Thelemic organizations are caught between the contemporary impulse to lower the bar, and Crowley’s elitism and his insistence on severe self-discipline and actual attainment. Guenon would note that these desires for equality propel the fall from metaphysics into mere religion. Religion’s emphasis is on morality and emotions – not thought or even real action. Any idiot can be religious and plenty of idiots are. The morality in the Thelemic community becomes a herd morality – it validates the group and its needs rather than the individual. Some in the Thelemic community keep insisting (contra Crowley himself in “Magick Without Tears”) that Thelema is a religion and I suspect they are responding to the modern need to lower the bar in the way Strauss means.
Thelema itself contradicts the Hegelian desire for universal recognition. If this is true, it is impossible to simultaneously work for a Thelemic future and struggle for a left-wing Hegelian one. This conflict is critical, but most are missing it.
Skepoet: Looking at Hegel for a moment: what do you think has happened to the right Hegelians?
Keith418: Are the neocons right hegelians? What about Heideggers lecture on Hegel in which he declared that the Hegelian project was realized in 1933?
Skepoet: I thought most people who like Spengler would consider the neocons “left hegelians.” Anyway, let me rephrase the question. I was reading an article on Hegel’s relationship to Hermeticism, and it seems to me that Perennialists are partially Hegelian in their attempts to reconcile the world religions. Do you see this as sort of right Hegelianism or am I strenching here?
Keith418: “The universal substance, as vital, exists only so far as it organically particularizes itself.”- Hegel
Is this a “right Hegelian” truism or a “left Hegelian” axiom? How would someone like Guenon see it? And how particular do we mean? What’s the test?
Skepoet: Hard to say, honestly. Perhaps I am applying political categories where they don’t apply. Guenon seems to be operating with a concept of the universal manifesting int the particular, and in that sense, it would be in the universalism inherent in Hegel and almost dialectical, but that is perhaps a weak sense.
Recently,I have been thinking on the religious left and the religious right. It seems like the real functioning belief system is not the religious element, but the political one as if the political bent was the true religion. Do you see this in various stripes in the Occult community? Any variants from the standard middle class liberal or libertarian bias?
Keith418: Has politics replaced religion? This is what happens with secularization. On the other hand, the underpinnings of both right and left remain religiously grounded – the informing metaphysics guiding the politics originates in theological concepts.
I think the occult community bends with the winds emanating from the larger culture. Though this is the opposite model of the one advanced by conspiracy theorists, who see occult forces and actors operating
behind the scenes, it is nonetheless true – even for the leaders of the Thelemic community. Friends have noted, quite uncannily, that they tend to unconsciously imitate whoever the current American president
Many of the OTO people I know accept liberal-left ideas as simply as a priori “common sense” – or see this set of values as simply “what everyone knows to be true.” They are utterly nonplussed when you try to get them to see these sets of beliefs as an informing ideology. They are very reluctant to question their own liberal political values – all the while attacking, you know, “fundamentalists.”Very, very few of the libertarian Thelemites I know stay true to libertarian beliefs under pressure. After 9-11, they all became neocons and forgot their libertarian ideals. This is why I would say that a libertarian figure like Ron Paul has almost zero support among Thelemites. Obama remains far, far more popular.
Skepoet: You have commented that you think post-Enlightenment humanism has a limited conception of man? Would you like to go into that? Furthermore, do you see it being tied into the tacit metaphysics
underlying all of this?
Keith418: The Enlightenment saw man as the “rational animal.” If this isn’t true, then what is our new definition? Most political thinking retains this central definition and basic understanding. The
post-Enlightenment period hasn’t grappled, enough, with getting past this. To do so, people fear, would mean abandoning the pillars and central values that inform our shared life – equality, democracy, etc.
Metaphysics, at its best, reveals news way to go. The occult community, at its worst, stands at the door and balks.
Skepoet: I have been thinking about this in Zizek’s recent discussions of human rights being both formal and illusory. Do you see the rhetoric of human rights as sort of a lingering theological view in a secular quise?
Keith418: Yes, and this is what Alain de Benoist says over and over again. His recently translated book on the subject goes into this subject in depth. On the one hand, “human rights” seems to us to be this unquestionable bedrock. When examined, on the other hand, it’s all thinly disguised theology. Benoist points out that it’s become the new way to dominate the Third World. First we had to subdue them to bring them Christianity. Then it was “progress” – and then more explicitly technological progress; the benefits of Western rationality. Now it’s all about “human rights.” The end result is always the same, isn’t it?
No one can question appeals to human rights without putting themselves outside of humanity itself – to be skeptical about these justifications is to be a monster and inhuman. No one can argue with a monster. Monsters just need to be destroyed. The theological privileging of those making appeals to “human rights” is palpable.
Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Keith418: “Optimism is only a concealed pessimism, a pessimism that avoids itself. In this age of the convulsion of the entire world pessimism and optimism remain, in the same way, powerless for what is necessary.” – Heidegger
“We want to repose, to be at peace with our fellows whom we love, who misunderstand us and for whose love we are hungry. We want to make terms, we want to surrender. But I have always found that, though I could acquiesce in some such line of conduct, though I could make all preparations for accommodation, yet when it came to the point, I was utterly unable to do the base, irrevocable act.” – Crowley
Marx and Engels sometimes used a different formulation. Near the beginning of the Communist Manifesto, it says, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles….a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (in Draper, 1998; p. 105—107). Draper explains this as “either a revolution that remakes society or the collapse of the old order to a lower level” (1998; p. 200). Marx may have had the fate of ancient Rome in mind.
Engels restated this several times throughout his Anti-Duhring. He wrote that the modern working class must make the socialist revolution or else face “…sinking to the level of a Chinese coolie,” while the bourgeoisie is “a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive [with a] jammed safety-valve…” (1954; pp. 217—218). For the capitalist class, “…its own productive forces have grown beyond its control, and…are driving the whole of bourgeois society toward ruin, or revolution” (p. 228). When the capitalist system turns most people into proletarians, “…it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution” (p. 388).
Socialist revolution is not inevitable, Engels was saying here. It is a possible choice. But if it is not chosen, in the epoch of capitalist decay, society faces destruction, with the working class reduced to the level of the starving, super-exploited, Chinese workers of that time. Therefore the working class and its allies should consciously and deliberately decide to make the revolution (as we, the revolutionary minority, want it to).
Engels did not specifically state that this was a moral choice. That is implicit. There is no great ethical reasoning involved in preferring socialist revolution to the ruin of the working class and all society. The main issue is whether we agree with the political-economic analysis, as I do. Yet I regard it as a weakness that the ethical issues are not brought front and center.
Where Engels said the alternatives were “ruin or revolution,” the great, revolutionary-democratic, Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, said the alternatives were “socialism or barbarism” (Geras, 1976). She believed that capitalism was in its final epoch, propping itself up by imperialism, which would lead to greater crises and devastating world wars. She foresaw that capitalism, if unhindered, would destroy culture and populations, would create deserts where there had been cities and nations. She was accused of believing that the economic collapse of capitalism was inevitable. What she believed was that if capitalism was left alone, to follow out its own dynamic laws of development, it would eventually collapse, and produce “barbarism.” This was “inevitable.” But she argued, if the working class chooses to intervene in history, it will be able to prevent barbarism and collapse; it will be able to save humanity through making socialist revolution.
The anarchist Murray Bookchin noted that the hierarchical structures of modern capitalism threaten human survival through nuclear war or ecological catastrophe (he wrote before global warming became so obvious). “No longer are we faced with Marx’s famous choice of socialism or barbarism; we are confronted with the more drastic alternatives of anarchism or annihilation. The problems of necessity and survival have become congruent with the problems of freedom and life” (1986; p.62).
In its epoch of decay, capitalism threatens humanity with terrible destruction. That is why a revolution is necessary. If this were not so, then socialism (of some sort) might be a nice ideal, a morally-attractive goal, but it would not be necessary. There would be no need to ask workers and others to engage in great struggles, to risk everything in a revolution, if capitalist society might continue on a course of gradual improvement, with ups and downs in the economy. Indeed, it would be wrong to advocate a revolution, with all its costs, in wealth and blood, and risky uncertainties.
While threatening destruction, capitalist industrialism has also made possible a new, non oppressive, classless society. Its technology is so immensely productive that it could provide plenty for everyone, with lots of leisure and only a minimum of labor. No doubt the technology would have to be redesigned to fit a sustainable ecology and a self-managed economy, but the potentials are there to do that.
Will the working class take up the challenge? Capitalist industrialism pushes them toward class consciousness and revolution. But some workers are (relatively) better off than the majority of the world’s workers. Marx and Engels sometimes called this layer of proletarians, the “labor aristocracy.” These workers may be bought off, corrupted, or just feel satisfied with the way things are. At the opposite pole, there is a mass of very poor workers, including the super-exploited (paid less than society’s standard for their labor-power commodity) and the unemployed. They may be exhausted, demoralized, and overwhelmed, feeling uninterested in economic or political struggle. There can be no guarantee that either layer of the working class, or any other, will engage in struggle at any particular time and place.
Marx believed that socialism was only possible when technology had become potentially productive enough. Only this made it possible to return to the equality and freedom of early human hunter-gatherer societies (“primitive communism”) but with a much higher standard of living. In the past socialism (communism) was simply not possible. There was not enough to go around. After previous revolutions, most people had to go back to the daily grind in order to keep everyone fed, while a few were able to spend full time being rulers, as well as artists or scientists. Various mass struggles could produce more freedom if they won, but they could not jump from a low level of productivity to socialist liberation.
But productivity has greatly expanded. For example, up until quite recently, as history goes, 95% of the population was committed to raising food, so that 5% or less could live in cities and have an urban culture. Today, in the industrialized nations, the proportions are reversed. Less than 5% of the population produces more than enough food to feed the rest of the nation. Even if we turned to fully organic methods of farming, the proportion of those who have to do farm work will be much smaller than they have been for most of history. It has finally become possible to have a society which satisfies the needs and wants of all its members, under socialism.
“Production by freely associated men [note]…,” wrote Marx, “demands for society a certain material groundwork or set of conditions for existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development” (p. 92).
Similarly Kropotkin wrote that in the past, “…the power of production of food-stuffs and of all industrial commodities had not yet reached the perfection they have attained now. …Communism was truly considered as equivalent to general poverty and misery, and well-being was…accessible to a very small number only. But this quite real and extremely important obstacle to communism exists no more. Owing to the immense productivity of human labor…a very high degree of well-being can easily be obtained n a few years by communist work” (2002; p. 172).
This concept of Marx’s and Kropotkin’s cannot be proven or disproven (without access to an alternate universe). I hope it is true. If it is not true—if it was possible to achieve socialism any time since people began agriculture 10 thousand years ago—then humans have been failing to create socialism for 10 thousand years. This does not make our future chances look good. But if socialist freedom has only been possible for a century or two at most, due to the development at last of the necessary “material groundwork,” then this is not a long time as history goes. It suggests that we still have a chance to create a free and cooperative society–before catastrophe overtakes us.
Skepoet: So it’s been a few weeks since we talked, but we have seen a seeming organized crack down on Occupy in the States. The Occupy Seoul has long since died down. I am going to shot-gun a few question at you. What is going on in Occupy Philly? In a recent conversation, you told me there was tensions between the Unions and the activists in Philly? Has there been scapegoating of anarchists in Philly?
Nik: Occupy Philly, in the vein of many of the other Occupations, has largely split among people who favor more direct action and not yielding an inch, and a group who want to accommodate the city at every turn. Most of the discussion has centered on if we will move from City Hall across the street to Thomas Paine Plaza. There is a federal/state/city infrastructure project that calls for the refurbishing of the space we are Occupying and for an ice skating rink to be built there. There are many issues that cropped up because of this. First, the permit application had no end date. When the permit was returned by the city, it said a TBD date for the renovation project. Second, it’s union work, which I’ll get into more in the second question. Third, the renovations would provide more disabled access to the subway station and plaza where we are camped. We tried to contact the city about the move, but received no response, other than to say they wouldn’t issue another permit until we moved. This brought about concerns of if they will issue it at all. A proposal to move was brought up at the General Assembly and it was soundly defeated. This led to a splinter group calling themselves Reasonable Solutions to declare that the GA wasn’t speaking for the Occupation, and that they were the real Occupiers and they were going to negotiate with the city. I’ll get into what followed in the third question.
The tension between the Unions and the activists is simply jobs. The trade unions want their jobs. The project creates 20 permanent jobs, and over a hundred temporary jobs. The Union leadership asked the activists to move, and promised assistance. The issue there is that the Radical Caucus thinks moving is giving in, and wants concessions from the city and promises of more help besides moving from the Unions. In addition, the trades have a reputation for getting what they want and not delivering.
As far as the scapegoating of anarchists goes, there has been much of it from the beginning. Certain groups, including some of the Reasonable Solutions people, have been circulating the theory that there are anarchists being bused in to sway votes at the GA. Cindy Millstein, an anarchists activist and writer, has been their target. The City Paper did a wonderful job of pointing out that Philadelphia has one of the largest, most diverse, and active anarchists population in the country. The corporate media jumped on board the scapegoating this week. There was an issue where a homeless gentleman spray painted and defecated on the walls underground. The Daily News blamed this on anarchists. They also called the people who wanted to follow the vote of the GA “mostly anarchists.” We have not had many arrests here, but the ones that have come lately have been violent in nature. The media has connected this to anarchy for the most part. Fortunately, in serious incidents, like a rape that was alleged, they didn’t tie that to the anarchists.
One other thing that’s become a problem is the homeless. Not that they’re there or causing problems, because that happens everywhere. The issue is that various groups are speaking for them instead of letting them speak for themselves. Some people who want to stay are saying they should because otherwise it makes the homeless move as well, and a lot of them stayed there before we Occupied. Valid point, perhaps, but not one that a group of young people who have homes to go to should be making. The city is claiming that we are damaging the homeless by providing them with food and protection in the group. They claim that the homeless would be moving into shelters if not for us. Not accurate, and again, speaking for people who may be willing to speak for themselves if asked. The one good thing is we managed to wrangle 4 gyms and another property to use as emergency shelters for them.
Skepoet: Did Philly act in solidarity with OWS in general strike on the 17th?
Nik: Philly did act in solidarity with the call to action. They marched in an event to the Market Street bridge, which the state of PA has said needs to be repaired or replaced, and sat down in the middle of the street and blocked traffic on one of the busiest streets in the city during rush hour. Even this did not come without conflict, as the original organizers of the event would not let people join in on the street who wanted to. The radical caucus was upset by this, because some of them were looking to get arrested.
Skepoet: Can you describe the poilitical orientation of the each faction in more detail? Have Democrats been more involved? Are there large groups of libertarians and Ron Paulites in the group?
Nik: There are some Democrats involved. MoveOn, Union leadership, and politicians affiliated with the Dems, like Jesse Jackson, have all stopped by to offer support. The good news about the horizontal setup is it’s been impossible to really co-opt because unless they join working groups and show up for a lot of GAs, they’re not making decisions. There are enough different factions, ranging from Paulites to syndicalists, that are wary of everyone. There is a Paulite tent. For the most part, they kind of operate in their own world. I think there are a lot of people tied into the divisiveness that affiliate themselves with those libertarians and Paulites. They built a propane heating room, which didn’t sit well with the city because of the fact that there was basically a bomb sitting on their doorstep. Also, it’s hard to get a handle on the guy who was in charge of the Facebook page and started the splinter group Reasonable Solutions. I’ve had a lot of people say he is “weirdly conservative.” The constant desire to march on the Fed as the solution to all problems is proposed by them constantly, and regularly defeated. As far as the factions, it’s not political lines per se. There are anarchists that are part of the Radical Caucus and ones that pushing for the move. There are union rank and file members who are pushing to stand up to the city, and union leadership that’s pushing to work with the city. The divisiveness has become less about political lines and more along the lines of issues that have cropped up down there.
Skepoet: Has any paranoia sat-in within the movements?
Nik: As far as the paranoia, it’s there. People can feel the inevitable crackdown of the city coming. Living on the streets breeds a specific paranoia in and of itself. People’s lives are there, and their stuff is there, and the fact is that some people view an encampment as an opportunity to take things that don’t belong to people. In addition, the media has been producing divisive articles, so that has caused a lot of people to accuse other people of looking out for themselves. In addition, the lines of division listed above have the daily ability to cause people to think that people who don’t believe what they believe are going to go behind their backs. There actually have been groups that set up secret meetings with the city, and filed for permits elsewhere. Since this movement, has in general, become about holding land in the face of power and not about the original meaning of pointing out what is wrong with the system, it allows paranoia to run rampant because the city does actually want their land back. There are simple ways to fix this, and to make the movement evolve, so we will see if the GA is willing to bring new ideas to the table, or if they are going to descend further into the rabbit hole where a plaza in the middle of the city is the center of the universe.
Skepoet: Do you worry that the focus on the occupation actually leads occupiers to miss the what is at stake or do you think this actually clarifies matters or, perhaps, both in various proportions? Would you explain the reasons for your answer there as well?
Nik: That’s my biggest concern right now. Holding a piece of land to defy the state may be admirable, but it isn’t effective. In Tahrir Square, they solidified one demand and so were able to keep coming until it was met. We don’t have that in the U.S. On the plus side, it has awakened many people to the idea that we have to do more. Other avenues and ideas are being tossed around to both implement now and bring about after the Occupation ends. I think the issue comes from the fact that there are a lot of utopians who think that this Occupation is run the way things should be- consensus-based horizontal democracy. They think that the whole world should be that way. Anything that suggests taking a step back and evaluating or trying something else is met with claims of not supporting the GA, the Occupation, or the Revolution, depending on who you talk to. Now, as far as the people who view this as more of an opportunity to reach people and awaken them to the struggle that’s going on between the classes, they have realized that they have to go out among the people instead of isolating themselves in a place where the media and the politicians can take pot shots at us. This has lead to a more visible support among other groups and attempts at education. The unions came out in their colors yesterday, and explained more about organizing and what they’re trying to do about class struggles. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear the unions talking about class. More direct action has come about. The march on the bridge, occupying a Wells Fargo bank, and more planned for the future. I feel like these actions speak to a lot of people that the real action is going to take place away from City Hall, and out in the streets. We can have continued events and education to mark the Occupation, but I think a majority realizes now that it’s not about the place; it’s about what’s going on everywhere.
Skepoet: Are you aware of the anarchist essay from a few years ago: “occupy everything and demand nothing?”
Nik: I am not familiar with it.
Skepoet: Its central thesis is that any demands legitimate the current political system and that “you should demand nothing because everything is already yours.” I find this fascinating because I think there is truth to it, but I also think it leads to some really inchoate politics when it isn’t articulated directly. Do you think there should be demands?
Nik: I don’t think there should be any demands in the Occupy movement. The only demand I’d personally support is revolution anyway, and this isn’t that. I also think it would be far easier to co-opt if demands were introduced. If our demand was reducing the economic inequality, the Republicans would proclaim tax cuts were the way to go, and the Dems would say to support Obama’s job bill. This needs to be a movement of action, not of begging and waiting for an answer. Now as far as the “everything is already yours” part of the idea, I suppose that’s a philosophical debate rather than a practical one. The practical matter is one class owns nearly everything, and has the ability to get more, which they are currently using with devastating consequences to the working class. I would say “you should demand nothing, but do everything” would be a far more effective thing to say about Occupy.
Skepoet: I am going to push you on this, we’re both on the left, but when you say one class owns everything, I am not quite sure you’re right: Do CEO’s or the bourgeoisie owe everything? Here’s the crux of the question: CEO’s are not truly speaking capitalists in the strict sense, they’re labor aristocracy or the managerial class. Yet many of them are in the 1%, and many petite bourgeoisie are not. So how do you see this class entanglement actually breaking down? Furthermore, how do you see this as related to the 99% rhetoric of #Occupy?
Nik: That’s fair. It was a hyperbolic statement. Do I think there needs to be a new way of breaking down class? Yes. Working in finance has shown me that even people who are not capitalists and even those who are not wealthy will work actively to oppress people in other classes. I imagine you do have to step away from the Marxist definition of class as only relating to the means of production. Instead of the Victorian model of the petite bourgeoisie who mimicked the behavior of the capitalist class, today’s labor aristocracy and managers, as well as many workers, try to mimic the values of the capitalist class in terms of greed, patriotism, and the thought process that the capitalists earned everything they had and they deserve it. What the labor aristocracy and management class do possess is capital, therefore the own potential forces of repression and they own people’s excess labor tied up into a social concept that has come to dominate the meaning of life in the U.S. I imagine at this point, the State would be less likely to defend factories from workers than they would banks and financial centers. I do support a redefinition of the classes and the relationship between the classes in general. I’m sure someone has tackled that, but I haven’t come across it yet. Some of the 1%, especially people who don’t own the means of production, may find themselves siding with some of the ideas of Occupy. I think the 99% is crap. I think it lumps people into a mass that has the potential to silence them, because some of us do want to see revolutionary change. Some people want reform. Some people have no idea what they want. It works in today’s media, but as a real concept, it’s ridiculous.
Skepoet: It was done by Maoist thinkers in China, but eventually led to Third Worldism, and was done by James Burnham in the Trotskyite mold, but he predicted a fascist victory in World War 2 and when that panned out wrong, he became a neo-conservative. So these thinkers haven’t been addressed in the more popular left. Do you think another part of the problem is that most of the Marxist and, honestly, social
anarchist rhetoric is around factories even though the means of production in most of the world now are far more subtle? There are many people working on this so it’s not entirely new or relegated marginal parts of the left, but it is an issue.
I suppose my question is that is #Occupy forcing us to deal with these problems and how do you see the increased pressure from the police and from internal factions clarifying things for you personally?
Nik: I personally think that’s a huge problem. Instead of worrying about the means of production, which is still a concern, I don’t think there is enough written about how the movers and holders of capital exploit workers and the unemployed. We talk about how it’s generally unfair, and how the system sucks, but we haven’t been able to connect the dots enough for people to understand.
I don’t think Occupy is forcing the masses to deal with this problem, but it is awakening an awareness of the problem, especially among the radical left. It is pointing out to the radical left that we are not connected with the workers, the unions, and the community-at-large though we should be. I think the police pressure is clarifying that for me, because there are a ton of people who have to deal with that pressure every day, for nothing more than standing there. The repression is a daily activity of the police in some communities, and it’s something we need to address on the left. The factionalization of the Occupy makes it clear to me that all leftists, and especially leftist organizations, have to make it a point to educate themselves on not just theory, but on interpersonal relationships and working with other groups. We may all have our own ideas about what is going to work, but we don’t have the ability that other organizations have about how to work together. It’s a standard practice of businesses to give training in that, and I think the left would be served learning it. It also showed me, again, how many people think that they’re way is the only way, and anyone who doesn’t agree is somehow damaging the movement. Trying to control a mass movement is just a wasted effort. I’ve learned that people should look to participate and help where they can. Especially, as this is a leaderless movement, this isn’t the action to try to impose preconceived notions and standards upon. The media and the capitalist system has done a good job of making people not trust any leaders, which ties into some anarchist groups as well. It’s a problem, because no revolutionary action has taken place without some kind of leadership, even if it’s a council. The GA is an interesting force, but it’s intentionally made to be difficult to pass motions. I don’t have a solution for how to find new leaders who can inspire the masses, or what kind leadership would be the best for a mass movement, but I know that this isn’t it.
Skepoet: Well, consensus decision making is not true or particularly radical. It’s commonly tried in new moments, but consensus organizations are easily taken over oddly. Do you think the square one element of everything is obfuscating that? Which groups have been better able to use to the census elements of the GA in Philly?
Nik: Sorry, I took a local reporter to task for his coverage of Occupy Philly, and I’ve been going back and forth with him about his characterization of all who don’t agree with the “Reasonable Solutions” group that is trying to invalidate the GA. He claims that we need liberal capitalists like them, and everyone who doesn’t agree with them are anarchists and socialists, so we’ll see what happens.
I hate consensus. It confuses enough people to allow anyone to slip in and take charge, especially when one group controls what comes to the vote. I think certain utopian groups think consensus is some kind of miracle way of governing and pushed it in the various GAs. Various groups have been able to use the elements. Depending on who you talk to, there are claims that people stack the vote during issues that concern them, or that it’s fine. I’d have to say the Radical Caucus and the Direct Action working group have used consensus well, but the thing is that every GA is livestreamed, and those votes and propositions on the chat there are taken into consideration, if not actually counted, and all the GAs are announced, so anyone can use it.
Skepoet: What, in your opinion, is a more realistic organizational method?
Nik: Man, I don’t know. I’m trying to learn about more effective organizations, but I don’t have the time right now. I wish I knew a way to keep from becoming bureaucratic and still be effective. If we could figure that out, I think the left would be able to make great gains.
Skepoet: Let’s talk about a few more things on the ground: Do how do you see Occupy Philly fairing in the winter? What preparations are being made?
Nik: Well, with hints from police sources and the behavior of the press and the city lately, I think there will be a crackdown long before winter starts. Latest hint is tomorrow the police have been ordered to remove us from downtown. Preparations are asking for more warm donations, planning more actions because marching in the cold is better than sitting, and many of us discussing different tactics such as occupying buildings or sending people home and holding weekly rallies instead.
Skepoet: Wasn’t there a move to roll yourselves back just before this happened in preparation for winter (or the Democratic Elections)?
Nik: Some of us were talking about it, but it never went further than that. I imagine the dialogue will continue, but the actions of the mayor and the police have lowered it as a priority.
Skepoet: Honestly, there is an argument that police actions are actually keeping Occupy relevant and improves its public image. How do you react to this argument?
Nik: It keeps it in the forefront of sensationalistic media. Independent media sources are reporting on it whether there is police suppression or not. It does improve its public image, among the people who can afford the news. Sadly, that’s not a lot of people that I’m trying to reach. I’ve lived in the largest open-air drug market in the country. People there rarely get their news from anything besides the free Metro or the 6 o’clock news on the local networks. There isn’t much positive coverage there no matter what happens, because those broadcasters need access to the mayor and the police commissioner. To me, we have to reach people in the communities independent of the media who are reporting on the crackdowns. I’m not opposed to them doing it, and sharing disturbing images that reach some people all over the country, but it’s just not enough for me. I wanted to be a journalist, and most of the reporting on #Occupy by major outlets has just been poor.
Skepoet: Why do you think it has been so poor?
Nik: Well, since Occupy, though an old tactic hasn’t been used in modern media’s time, they have no idea how to cover something ongoing that doesn’t fit into their box. I’ve taken enough journalism classes, and written for enough school papers, to know that modern journalists aren’t taught to think on their feet. Since it can’t be wrapped up into headline, soundbite, and a good guy vs. bad guy narrative, they are floundering. It has shown how the better commentary and investigative journalism has moved into new media instead of the classic forms, but, unfortunately for the left and #Occupy, the classic forms still reach the most people.
Skepoet: Well, I think we may be talking about this again in the future, but could you talk about the possibility of #Occupy reviving the labor movement in closing? I’ve enjoyed our discussion.
Nik: I think #Occupy showed an example of what labor should have been doing. It’s a movement where people aren’t backing down due to politics. At least here, we’ve marched in support of labor concerns, and labor has turned around and done some self-examination. It has made both the leaders and rank and file more politically involved, and caused them to realize that workers are still exploited, and they need to do something about it. In addition, it provided a link from labor to the younger generation. Everyone I’ve known knows someone in a union. What this did was make sure everyone was friends with and worked side by side with someone in a union, and it also made the unions realize that they have to stand up for workers that aren’t able to be in a union. I do have higher hopes for a more educational and politically-involved labor movement, at least in my city.
The first interview in this series is here.
Horkheimer: I believe that Europe and America are probably the best civilizations that history has produced up to now as far as prosperity and justice are concerned. The key point now is to ensure the preservation of these gains. That can be achieved only if we remain ruthlessly critical of this civilization.
Adorno: We cannot call for the defence of the Western world.
Horkheimer: We cannot do so because that would destroy it. If we were to defend the Russians, that’s like regarding the invading Teutonic hordes as morally superior to the [Roman] slave economy. We have nothing in common with Russian bureaucrats. But they stand for a greater right as opposed to Western culture. It is the fault of the West that the Russian Revolution went the way it did. I am always terribly afraid that if we start talking about politics, it will produce the kind of discussion that used to be customary in the Institute.
-Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, :
So lately there is a move among those of us who are on the left to truly look at the Marxian tradition and acknowledge that it is, for better or for worse, a Hegelian tradition. It is a produce of the Radical Enlightenment, but in a tradition of ideal structures going back to immediately after Plato. In this, I have seen Chris Cutrone at Platypus, Moishe Postone, and now the new book from Zizek seems to go back to the Hegelian turn. Zizek saying that he is reading to go back from Marx to Hegel because somewhere there must have been a theoretical failure seems to be nearly an exact parallel to some of Moishe Postone’s writings on the subject.
This move back to Hegel is not new, it was the primary project of the first generation of the Frankfurt School, one can see the dialectical process in almost free form. However, even though I am read in Hegel as well as many Hegelians, not just Marx either, Oswald Spengler, Ludwig Feuerbach, Max Stirner as well as the Frankfurt school. My primary philosophical teacher was a Hegel scholar, a conservative one who chastised Marx for taking the spirit out of the dialectic. I, however, bought Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin’s conception totalitarianism was rooted in Hegel and was vaguely implied in all idealistic philosophy from the Platonic thinkers forward. When I returned to Marx it was through Althusser and G.A. Cohen as well as through anarchist critics of Marxism. Yet, I find myself strangely convinced by Zizek’s call to return to the radical uses of the dialectic. In fact, Chris Cutrone’s defense of Hegelian Marxism particularly convinced me:
The reason for Marxists distinguishing their approach from Hegel is precisely historical: that a change in society took place between Hegel’s and Marx’s time that causes Hegelian categories, as those of an earlier, pre-Industrial Revolution era of bourgeois society, to become inverted in truth, or reversed in intention. Marx’s idea was that the “contradiction” of bourgeois society had changed. Thus the dialectical “law of motion” was specific to the problem of capital and not a transhistorical principle of (social) action and thought. Marx’s society was not Hegel’s. The meaning of Hegel had changed, just as the meaning of the categories of bourgeois society had changed. Labour-time as value had become not productive (if not unproblematically) — as in Hegel’s and Adam Smith’s time, the era of ‘manufacture’ — but destructive of society; as a form of social mediation, wage-labour had become self-contradictory and self-undermining in the Industrial Revolution, hence the ‘crisis of capital’.
In other words, the break with Hegel is categorical and structural substance, not in methodology. So if tahere is a problem with categories in Marxian thought, one needs to go back and look at Hegel square on and sort work through. In this, this seems to be exactly what Zizek new project aims at doing and what Postone (whatever flaws one may find in him) is doing as well. SO I need to get over my conceptions of Hegelianism in all its guises. We need to get our categories straight.
Das Wahre ist das Ganze. – Hegel