I started this out by stating that we should embrace the radicalism of which we are accused. Having first seen the contours of the hegemonic violence of Monotheism’s spread throughout the world in its earlier incarnations, and then described the conditions of that same severance and violence through Capitalist expansion, we should start to wonder precisely why it is that those who insist upon gods who really-exist should be called radical at all.
That is, the belief in multiple gods, connection to land and ancestors, and all that Polytheism generally insists upon is not new, nor actually revolutionary. One might even state that it’s the other way around.
What, then, is it which makes belief in actually-existing, or “really real,” spirits and gods so unpalatable? What makes an indigenous person who continues to revere the spirits of the land and the ancestors an object of ridicule, a “primitive,” or an aberration? Why do even some who self-identify as Pagans or Witches consider these positions radical?
The answer lies again with the particular universalizing logic of Capitalism, the flattening of individual experience and belief, and, most particularly, Capitalism’s Hegemonic power.
Each place—and each people—which has experienced the coming of Capitalism has witnessed certain transformations which altered their previous social relations. In fact, Capitalism must alter these relations in order for it to exist within a society, replacing older or organically-emerging social relations with perpetual class conflict.
Economics is not merely the study of objects or money, it is the study of the social relations in which those transfers and exchanges occur. However much we may talk about numbers and profits and margins, we are referring to symbolic representations of the social interactions which generate those figures. All these social relations are mediated by the logic and imperative of Capital, of turning starting wealth into more wealth by compelling others to work on your behalf.
You are certainly “free” to work for someone else or not, but as in all questions of freedom, we should consider precisely what one’s options actually are.
For most of us, we must work for others in order to obtain that powerful, quasi-magical symbol called money, which represents wealth. If you have no wealth, and therefore no money, you have nothing to offer in exchange for things you require for existence. You cannot merely go out onto the land and grow your own food, because land is property and requires in order to access it (that is, to own it or rent it). You can certainly steal, if you don’t mind prison or the distrust of others; or you can beg, throwing yourself at the mercy of strangers.
Or you can work. But you cannot simply work for yourself, because it requires wealth to open a workshop or café. In order to have things to sell, to give to others in exchange for money, you must have money to begin with.
As in the case of the English peasants who found themselves no longer with access to land in order to farm, we must sell our ability to work (that is, our labor) to someone with money in order to obtain the means of our survival. In truth, we have little other choice.
Consider, though, the other side of this matter—the Capitalist. The Capitalist starts with wealth and wishes to have more of it. He, too, wishes to engage in a social relationship where people will give him money. He could, of course, open his own workshop and create things which other people will want or need and give him money for. If he does and stops there, he is not actually a Capitalist.
If he notices, however, that he can give some money to people who will make things on his behalf and then sell those things for a little more money than he paid those in his employ, he’s become a Capitalist.[For those unfamiliar with the actual definition of a Capitalist, it's this: a person who employs others to work his or her "Capital" in order to increase that Capital re-invest it into more Capital-increasing schemes. So, "small business owner" is actually not a Capitalist until he or she hires someone to work. A Capitalist is a specifically social position, just as Capitalism is a social relationship]
In order to do this, though, the Capitalist requires a ready group of people willing to work for him for less money than they could earn by doing all this for themselves, and for as little money as he can get away with, as wages cut into his profit. But because slavery isn’t quite legal anymore, he requires each of these workers to do so of their own apparent “free will.”
Fortunately for him, their survival depends upon working for him. The effects of the displacement caused by Capitalism, the severance from land, is precisely what creates for the Capitalist a ready workforce.
People in his employ face an imperative—work or starve, and so they’re willing to accept the terms of the Capitalist’s offer because they must. They can, of course, certainly work for another Capitalist, and so a tension is created between Capitalists to find the most skilled workers for the least pay, but this apparent conflict becomes collusion quite quickly when groups of workers begin to organize to demand higher pay.
Workers (or in Marxist terms, the Proletariat) sell their labor to the Capitalist not of their own “free-will,” but because of the imperative: work or starve. Their freedoms are limited by the fact that they have no other options–they lack the “means of production” that the Capitalist possesses through his wealth.
Still, social relations within Capitalism masquerade as “freedoms,” and non-Capitalist social relations (including relations of the people to the land) are recast as primitive restrictions. One may certainly say that, under Capitalism, we no longer all have to work the land to get our food, but we should not delude ourselves—we are also not free to work the land for our food. We landless peasants have no choice but to work for the Capitalist and, if we are favored enough, we might be able, one day, to buy a bit of land of our own (or open a shop, or a factory, or a business), at which point we may finally purchase our freedom.
Unfreedom of Belief
Despite this unfreedom, why do we experience ourselves as “free?” That is, if what I’ve described is the true state of things, how is it that most of us operate under the impression that we are acting under our own volition?
Recall, yet again, my earlier discussion of the Hegemony and the question of direct and implied violence. In the example of the loaded gun pointed at our chest, our freedom is delineated, defined, and bounded by our desire for survival so much that we find ourselves internalizing the will of the aggressor. That is, we do what he demands because we must do so to survive.
On a larger scale, in social relations where the threat is more indirect and implicit (until you break a law or act outside of what is expected of you), it becomes difficult to trace precisely where our own choices are less-than-free. This complexity, expanded over many levels of abstraction, seems to produce in us the same internalized obedience which is seen in weaker nations within the sphere of influence of a Hegemonic power.
That is, we act as if we are free, though we are not.
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts the problem succinctly in an oft-quoted anecdote:
In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends:
“Let’s establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.”
After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink:
“Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the west, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing unavailable is red ink.”
And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants – the only thing missing is the “red ink”: we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.
Within the structure of Capitalist, Democratic societies, “belief” is a cherished freedom. Enshrined into most Western constitutions is some degree of assurance that the citizenry is free to believe what they choose, yet I’d argue precisely the opposite is the case. Similar to the “freedom” within economic exchange (you are free to work for whomever will hire you, though you are not free to work for no-one if you are not born to wealth) is a near identical lack of “red ink” within the sphere of belief itself.
Belief is generally seen to be an internal category, descriptive of an interiority invisible to any except the person who experiences it. As such, we tend to regard belief in the same category as “opinion,” a description of an inclination towards particular ontological positions but otherwise indefinable except through verbal communication.
I believe in multiple gods, and when I say “I believe in multiple gods,” I have thus communicated to you my interior state and theological position. But you must judge whether I have expressed something very deeply held, or merely a philosophical stance towards the subject. The ambiguity inherent in such a statement increases if you have no actual relationship with me. Conversely, if you also profess a similar belief, you may wish to parse out further precisely what I mean by “multiple” or “gods” (that is, am I a Polytheist with monist tendencies, or do I mean “literal” gods or more archetypal or psychological expression of deity?)
Expanding this difficulty out of the personal, though, one can see how such statements of belief might become even more ambiguous on the level of social groups, cultures, or entire nations. When we consider statements of statistical fact regarding the religious affiliations of entire nations, like “there are 828 million Hindus in India,” we accept such statements generally as equivalent to “828 million people in India profess to a belief in multiple gods.” But still, we know very little about what such belief actually means beyond the professions of faith and the self-identifications. We might be well-versed in the structures of the Hindu religions and thus have a greater sense of what is meant by “828 million Hindus,” but this still resides fully in the realm of interiority.
It isn’t until one then looks at the actual activities of self-professed Hindus in India that one begins to get a sense of what they actually believe. A brief observation of the physical surroundings of these folks who profess belief in the existence of many gods shows particular structures built to honor the object of their belief. That is, India is littered with temples and shrines, physical evidence of an internal belief. The same can be said of Christians, or of any other religious group which professes belief in divine beings who can be experienced, communicated with, oblated to, or interceded with through structures. That is, the landscape itself attests to the interior experiences of individual and group belief, revealing physical activity of the believers which results in the construction of very physical things.
It isn’t just the physical structures, however, which can be used to discern the content and depth of the belief professed by any individual. The physical activities of those whom believe in gods and spirits can also be observed. Christians who wake up early once a week to attend church services are engaging in actual religious activity on account of their beliefs, just as the Muslim who prays to the east five times daily does so on account of her belief in Allah and the prophet Mohammed.
Such activity can be observed not just by others who believe similar things, but even among those who profess no actual belief in gods or spirits. An anthropologist observing the activities of the people he studies can thusly attest to a whole range of activities (often categorized as specifically religious), which are signs of the meaning of interior experiences. That is, it’s precisely all these physical activities which tell the observer what is meant by those statements of belief, and we can then begin to formulate an understanding of their faith.
More so, it’s precisely those human activities which point to the existence of the gods and spirits whom humans encounter and worship. As the post-colonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty says in Provincializing Europe:
“…gods and spirits are not dependent upon human beliefs for their own existence; what brings them to present are our practices.”
From this viewpoint, then, we can begin to re-examine precisely what is meant by “freedom of belief” in Western Capitalist democracies. One is certainly “free” (by which one really means “not explicity restricted from”) believing in anything one chooses, but any belief which affects the world around the believer falls into a completely different category. That is, if that belief isn’t mere opinion, than there are, indeed, a whole host of prohibitions against that belief.
One is free to hold any opinion one wishes. However, if that stance rises to the level of actual “belief,” and the person espousing such a belief then begins to do things which show that he or she actually believes such a thing, they quickly fall into the political category of “radical” or “fundamentalist,” and there are laws against acting out such beliefs. We can see such restrictions quite clearly in Europe, where advanced Capitalist democracies such as France and Denmark have outlawed such physical manifestations of belief in schools or passed laws against Kosher and Halal butchery. In America, we can see similar attempts to ban minority expressions of belief while simultaneously affirming the dominant religion’s right to physically follow through with their beliefs.
But there’s a trick here, a sort of thaumaturgic glamer in the justifications for such things. One may speak of cultural wars, or the danger of certain foreign beliefs and yet, without any intentional self-deception, assert that one is free to believe whatever one wants, seeing no contradiction between the repression of the beliefs of others and this supposed freedom. It would be facile merely to claim that the West is hypocritical. Hypocrisy requires a degree of self-awareness, a purposeful decision to act in a way contradictory to the manner one demands others act. It would not be merely facile to argue this–we’d be utterly wrong.
Rather than merely a matter of hypocrisy, I would argue precisely that Western societies actually suffer from the same lack of “red ink” of which we spoke earlier.
This all brings us back, yet again, to the universalizing, Hegemonic logic of Capitalism.
By severing individuals and social groups from the means of their own production (that is, the land), Capitalist displacement also severs them from their means of creating social relations outside of Hegemony. Just as an individual cannot merely grow their own food on socially-recognized commons, they also have no access to what else the Commons created. Several historians, including Sylvia Federici, have pointed out that The Commons were physical places where social and ritualistic activities occurred outside the official institutions of belief (that is, the Church). An entire sphere of social relations were obliterated when there was no longer physical space to enact them.
The human need for these social relations does not simply disappear once they cannot be enacted, just as the human need for food does not diminish once one can no longer farm. But as in case of food and other physical things created through human labor, these social relations now became available only through “markets,” which is why, when vapid theorists speak of the “marketplace of ideas,” they are not entirely wrong.
Keep in mind—Markets are metaphorical, certainly, but they are also physical spaces. Severed from the physical enactment of social relations (including religious activity, such as building shrines), humans must rely upon what is offered through official, regulated exchanges. Anyone who’s been to an American mall can certainly attest to how utterly controlled the environment is, how it appears to offer endless choices and yet is not at all a space of freedom. There is a specific flattening of experience therein, a parade of apparent choices which are somehow the same (and very much the same in every mall, just as most malls are eerily similar to each other).
Two aspects of the coffee chain Starbucks might be illuminating to this point. Firstly, just like any large employer, Starbucks can only tolerate a minimal amount of difference and individuality within the largest part of its workforce. Individuals who work at the cafes are certainly free to be different outside the cafe, but in order to continue working, they must not be too different. “Partners,” as they’re cynically called, have little control over precisely how the product they create is actually made, nor can they reflect too much of a separate identity while acting as a barista.
This extends further into the actual cafes themselves, as well as the products. While one cafe may have baristas you prefer, actual difference is obliterated and, most intriguingly, is precisely the reason why a customer goes to Starbucks in the first place. That is, the experience of Starbucks is universal; the same product and the same sorts of people, as well as the same sorts of chairs and décor are found in each one.
Like the Catholic Mass, the customer knows what is expected of her when she enters, the words to utter, the behavior to evince. She knows where to stand, when to approach, and what to do when the cup is offered.
She knows it will be the same each time, in any land she travels.
Anywhere she goes, the chaos and unpredictability of the competing coffee temples, with their varied experiences, their bizarre, localized language of describing the sacred drink, have been quashed. Those places which remain she has been trained to avoid, for she is as unknown to them as their way is unknown to her. She cannot be certain of the quality of blessing therein.
Capitalism destroys difference precisely because it is the inheritor of Monotheism. Both require the universalization of their logic in order to maintain acceptance and control. Both require the annihilation of the plurality of human experiences so that there is nowhere left for humans to turn except towards what they both “offer.”
But there is a way of breaking out of this Hegemony. We can’t do it alone, but fortunately, we are in incredible company.