Radical Relationality (Part One)

What follows is part one of the presentation I gave at the Polytheist Leadership Conference in Fishkill, NY on the 11th of July, 2014.  I have decided to publish it in smaller sections, as the complete presentation is over 10,000 words, a bit longer than most internet readers tend to have the patience for.
 
The full version will be published together with other presentations and reflections.  Also, material from this presentation will appear again in my book on Paganism and Capitalism.
 
 

Introduction

Polytheists have been accused of being radicals. Something apparently wild, dangerous, unhinged seems to exist about what we’re doing, at least in the minds and in the statements of Pagan “elders,” popularly prosaic internet writers, and the part-secular Neo-Pagan-Naturalists.  People with Pagan leanings, Witches in well-populated traditions, and even self-identified “new Animists” have all sounded an alarm as if to inoculate the rest of Paganism against the inherent danger of what we’re on about.

We are, it would seem, taking the gods and spirits a little too seriously, acting as if they really exist and really matter and really affect the world.

If this is our radicalism, I think we should embrace it.

More so, I’m going to attempt to make you more radical, not less.  And in doing so, I’m gonna talk to you about Capitalism, and about Hegemony, and a bunch of other rather unpopular Marxist and Anarchist theories, and probably one of the first questions you might be asking is, why?

Why talk about Capitalism, if what we’re on about is the gods and spirits?  Why not talk about Monotheism, for instance?

Well, heh, we’ll do that too.  But I’ll bring it back to Capitalism, and show you how they’re related.

I intend to show you that, rather than being a mere political problem, something confined to the material realm and our non-spiritual existence, Capitalism has created the specific conditions which has made belief in the gods and their return to the conscious worlding of humanity near impossible.  Not only that, but the struggle against Capitalism is also the struggle for the return of the gods, or, more specifically, for the return of conditions of existence where the gods and spirits can be worlded back into not just our lives, but of the societies in which we live.

My primary thesis, then, is this—the Radicalism of which we are accused is, indeed, an adequate summation of our position, even if not necessarily our intentions. Our very presence and actions begin to threaten the order and stability of the societies in which we exist, because the gods and spirits with who we interact are a threat to the systems of control which sustain Western society, both its secular, disenchanted modalities as well as its continued Monotheistic forms.

Both merge together and are embodied in what we can call Western Capitalist Hegemony.

I’d even argue that Western Capitalist Hegemony requires a world without gods, a world without a multitude of experiences.  Through violence, upheaval, displacement, and oppression, the order which now governs our actions and interactions has severed vast swathes of humanity from their ancestral religions, lands, customs, and sovereignty, and I now stand in a room full of inheritors of this trauma who’ve decided it’s time to fight back.

In order to explain this, I’ll  outline the historical processes of Capitalism and how it transforms not just economic relations between people, but all other social forms and relations.  These transformations will seem familiar to anyone whose contemplated what our ancestors endured in Europe and elsewhere as Monotheism took hold, displacing and annihilating older relations to Nature, the gods, and the spirits.

I will discuss the concept of Hegemony, a form of imperial governance which has transmuted itself to a form of social and cultural control which influences the way we express and understand belief.

And lastly, I’ll show how the inherent radicalism of polytheist belief and practice is not only naturally aligned with other radical movements, but also is an essential part of the same fight.  That is, radical anti-Capitalism, indigenous resistance and sovereignty movements, queer and other sexual liberationist movements, and radical environmentalist groups are not only natural allies, but essential aspects of our own liberation and the restoration of the gods and spirits into the world.

The Coming of the All-One and the Displacement of the Many

Easter11

The death of Ancestral traditions continues…

My sister married a man she soon regretted, who later entered seminary.  When I met him he spoke casually, with a sort of triumphant delight, regarding his first missions trip to Africa.  His group had contacted a nomadic tribe who’d not been seen by others for 80 years.  Their recent ancestors, upon first encountering European colonists, had fled further into remote regions of the Sahara rather than remain and convert to Christianity, just as they had done previously when faced with conversion attempts by Islamists.  So, 80 years on, a blond, scrawny, Republican traveled to Africa to bring to them the wonders of Jesus.

According to the tales he told, he managed to convert a few of them.  But he also got some of them addicted to ibuprofen.  The story is as follows–he’d had a headache one day, and one of the tribe had seen him take a little red pill.  When asked, he explained to them that it would make him feel better, and sure enough, a few hours later, he no longer had a headache.  When one of the tribe had a fever, they asked for one and he gave it to them.  And then, a few days afterward, he received repeated demands for these pills, including from a man who’d broken his arm.  Soon, the entire tribe requested some of this Western medicine, and he eventually ran out.  And suddenly, everyone had headaches and other pains.

He may not have converted the entire tribe to the gospel of a resurrected desert-god, but he certainly converted them to certain mechanisms of Western society, the manufactured product called pain-relievers, available in certain of our stores in bottles of a thousand, one of the many wonders of our modern, Capitalist markets.

I need not speak much on how appalled I was to hear this, nor particularly my rage at the humor with which he’d told the story.  I tried to be nice, as he’d just married my sister, but my horror was profound.

I tell this story for two reasons.  First, to remind that the process of conversion to Monotheism continues unabated, particularly by those from what is often considered a secular country (in which, of course, Christians still hold great political power).  This conversion occurs in other lands, mostly amongst people who are not white, and amongst those who still hold to animist beliefs, including veneration of ancestral spirits and gods.

(Remembering this is crucial, as we mostly-white, Western polytheists living in a secular and nominally post-Christian land have suffered severely from the loss of our ancestral knowledge and thus should find immediate solidarity with groups trying to cling to theirs.)

And I tell this for another reason.  Though this former brother-in-law went as a Christian missionary to a non-Christian people in order to convert them to his religion, he was not merely a missionary on behalf of monotheism.  With the Coca-Cola and the Advil he brought, with his politically conservative and pro-Capitalist beliefs, he went also as an ambassador of Western Empire.  Even though not many of those nomads accepted a deified Jewish teacher into their hearts, they began the process of conversion to subjects of Capitalist Empire.  That is, they became an emerging market.

Ancestral Severence

Boniface at Thor's Oak

Boniface at Thor’s Oak

 

We’ve all got obvious religious arguments against the peculiar monotheism of Christianity, and old historical wounds which remain unmended. I recently took Galina Krasskova’s Ancestor course–I’m sure many are familiar with the theories and foundations she teaches, either through taking her class as well or doing their own work to delve into what might be called our Ancestral wounds. A particular aspect of the course struck me quite hard, her discussion of what might be called a “traumatic gap” in the spiritual, physical, and cultural transmission of ancestral knowledge–the moment of monotheistic conversion.

At some point in the histories of people who comprise our ancestors, unless we are one of the very few who can claim an unbroken line of traditions (and that is to say, probably none of us from majority European descent), something ended, and likely during a moment of great violence. Were our ancestors of northern or eastern European descent, this moment may have occurred during one of the many campaigns to cut down the sacred Oaks of the villages during the middle part of the “middle ages.” Had they been in what is now France, it may have been very early, when the Roman legions conquered most of Gaul, or in Spain as the monarchs, in their effort to create a fully Christian kingdom, expelled all traces of every religious group who’d inhabited that land, even the Islamic (and relatively tolerant) Moors.

And for each bloodline we possess, some point came where the beliefs in the many gods and the many spirits, the power of the land, the breath of the moon and trees, the animate, “sensuous” world ended. Perhaps we think of a family huddling in their dark hovel over the stubs of candles made from animal fat, discussing the strange new One who’d swayed their village. Or the mother seeing her son return from one of the Crusades, his war-shocked face speaking eerily and emptily about the new God who brought him home safely from foreign lands. Maybe the king weighing the risk of an invasion of Templars into his land, listening to the wheedling argument of the Papist representative offering conversion or slaughter. Mayhaps one of our ancestors was bought with coin, or the promise of land, or found some other justification to turn their back upon the gods and spirits which had brought their people meaning for generations before.

 

St. Herve chapel, built over the site where Gwench'lan is sai to be buried.

St. Herve chapel, built over the site where Gwench’lan is said to be buried.

These moments were many, and the wave of conversions merciless. One of the last living Druids known to us in Bretagne, Gwenc’hlan, is said to have sang a final curse upon the Christian Prince who blinded him. While the provenance is uncertain, a sung curse baring his name was said still to be sung, even into the 1800’s, and the language of vengeance therein rivals the lament of the deported Jews in Babylon in what is probably the most Gothic psalm. Just as they wish blessings of their god upon those who “smash your infants’ heads against the rocks,” Gwench’lan calls upon the beasts not only to slaughter the prince and his family, but also to consume the man’s soul and bind it within a living toad.

Other laments certainly exist with similar ferocity, and it’s hard not to feel the deep rage of these events, even continuing such desire for retribution into the present against Christians both powerful and hapless, particularly as one hears of modern-day conversions by missionaries of remote African and South American peoples.

One might be tempted to see a separation between the Christianity born on the mind and tongue of the zealous missionary and all the other cultural and political forces which have shaped the context of his or her life. Within more “progressive” Christian sects, there’s more caution about divorcing American-ness from the actual “message” of the gospel being brought to the poor and unsaved masses in the “darker” lands; non-governmental organizations and academic researchers institute policies and offer training to reduce such cultural contagion, but these are relatively new and don’t extend to the armies of God.

But I don’t think we should see any such possible separation. The Monotheism that the missionary espouses is the same Monotheism which created the America that he is from, and that monotheism is likewise what birthed the Capitalist and Consumerist culture to which he has become subject and through which he is created.

That is, the Missionary now does not just go to a foreign land to convert them to his spiritual religion, he goes as one of the initial salvos in an imperialist and capitalist assault upon the people to whom he preaches. Regardless of his actual conscious mission and goals, his presence functions as an assimilating and destructive introduction to the cultural, spiritual, political and economic life of those he has gone to convert.

But we should not speak here of Monotheism being the actual problem. Though Monotheism severed peoples from their ancestral ways, it is more important to understand that it overlaid a system of political control which remains to this day, even as the power of (Christian) Monotheism seems to wane in the political sphere.

This system?  Hegemony, which will be discussed in part two.

About Rhyd Wildermuth

An intractable tea-swilling punk, queer hooligan, and dream-soaked leftist bard, Rhyd Wildermuth has left bits of his heart(h) everywhere—in a satyr’s den in Berlin, hanging from an elder tree over a holy well in Bretagne, scattered in back alleys of Seattle, and lost somewhere in the bottom of his rucksack. He’s devoted to Welsh gods, breathes words, makes candles, plays recorder, fumbles with tech, and refuses ever to learn to drive. His main blog is: paganarch.com. View all posts by Rhyd Wildermuth

7 responses to “Radical Relationality (Part One)

  • Jay

    This is very, very compelling stuff. I look forward to how the rest of your presentation unfolds.

    I had a friend a couple of months ago post a meme about Boniface and Thor’s Oak (I believe it was this one, in fact), making light of the fact that this saint chopped down a people’s sacred tree, destroying a foci of this people’s religious life. I hadn’t heard of Boniface before, but when I read about him I was livid with my friend for taking such glee in that tree’s destruction. He tried to defend his stance by saying that there was human sacrifice there, and that what Boniface did was a good thing by ending the place for such a sacrifice. When I pointed out that nowhere in the annals does it indicate that there was human sacrifice going on, simply “sacrifice” (most likely animal), he tried to suggest that was just as bad, and besides, Boniface was killed by Pagans so there (conveniently ignoring the fact that Boniface was reportedly killed by brigands, who are known from time to time for killing people for their stuff, regardless of religion). He simply failed to understand how a loss of such a sacred tree hurt, especially when it comes with the knowledge that there are no more sacred groves, and that it will take a hell of a lot for there to be sacred groves again.

    http://www.catholicmemes.com/insanity-wolf/saint-boniface-like-a-boss/

    Anyway, thank you for what you’re doing. You’re an incredible writer.

  • finnchuillsmast

    Very interesting to learn about Gwenc’hlan. Look forward to reading the rest of this.
    You might enjoy this piece I wrote eons ago, “The First Missionary War”, which can be found here: http://totg-mirror.thecomicseries.com/history/

    Horrifying that it still goes on.

  • Syd

    Capitalism is not responsible for making belief in gods nearly impossible. Science and critical thinking are responsible for that.

    Your story about the missionary and his pain reliever pills: those were an invention of science. You make capitalism sound like some evil force that has been imposed upon people but profit follows demand. If people want it, profit can be made from it. If we have an unhealthy society and planet because of this, it is not because of some evil force, but because most people are irrational and easily seduced. The deep flaws in human character will manifest regardless of what kind of socio-economic structure is in place.

    Also, regarding a comment you made on another post: industrialization did not come about because of capitalism (to maximize profits by exploiting labor) but rather because of something called “the division of labor” which dictates that when producing a material good, if the process is divided among several people, rather than just one person, the actual productivity increases in greater to proportion than the division. In other words, if four people are involved in making a product, they can make MORE than four times the amount of that product in the same amount of time than if only one person made it. This discovery overlooked the fact that the human subject is unsuited to such restricted and repetitious work and so created a very unfortunate condition for most people BUT it would have manifested in a socialist environment as surely as a capitalist one, and did (look at the history of the USSR. Industrialization rendered conditions even worse than under capitalist countries). Essentially, you put the donkey in front of the cart when you claim that industrialization occurred because of capitalism. It is simply that industrialization occurred within a capitalist framework first.

    And incidentally, I am no fan of capitalism. But I also understand that correlation does not equal causation, that the matters you speak of are more complex than you give credit for, and that a full understanding of something requires unbiased perspective (radical leftism is biased).

    • Rhyd Wildermuth

      Hi!
      If I may address primarily your main point (I’ve been quite pressed for time lately) regarding division of labor and industrialization:
      One can certainly have division of labor without Capitalism, Socialism, or Communism. In fact, we’ve always had some form of it, whether that be one group of people cutting grains while another threshes and a third group grinds.

      But what should interest us particularly is not the existence of such division, nor even its arrangement, but the imperative of the workers within the factories laboring at different sections of production. That is, what were the reasons they were there in the first place?

      That’s why economics is a branch of sociology, rather than a “science” or some other thing. It’s precisely because these are social arrangements, and there are sociological compulsions and factors. My second installment (just posted) looks more at the matter of displacement than this first section did.

      And I should clarify–by Industrialization I do not mean the existence of factories, but the imperative of having factories rather than cottage industries. To a person with money who wants more (that is, a “Capital-ist”), the imperative is more production for the least amount of cost (that is, “profit”). Capital is useless on its own: it must be worked by others in order to be increased, and industrialized production turned out to be the most effective way to increase Capital.

      That is, factories (with divided labor/assembly lines, etc.) were more profitable to the owner than, say, the merchantilist putting-out system or “buying cheap, selling dear.” That is why I assert (as to most economists, Marxist or otherwise) that industrialization came from the ethic of Capital.

      By the way, thanks for reading. :)

  • Syd

    I meant to say you were putting the cart in front of the donkey but I think you get the meaning. What you perceive as the cause of industrialization is only a correlation.

    Moreover, the core problem of industrialization is the same problem with nation states: that when human conglomerates of ANY kind expand in size, they become more complicated and less manageable and, essentially, less human. People just generally do better in smaller communities.

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