An Apparently Impossible Problem

My friend Jes Minah reminded me of a piece I wrote last year:

Do you remember when you told us about strawberry jam and snowflakes on our tongues and leaving the stuck bus?

I do.

I forgot.

I read it again, that piece. And now I remember, and now I remember the fear and all the concerns and I’m sorry for those.  I wish I had a better answer, but I think maybe this will help with some of the concerns I’ve been reading about what any group of people would do after-Capitalism.

The most recent concern, highly justified, has been about what folks with disabilities might do without access to Capitalist means of distribution of products necessary to their survival.  This applies to many people, people with HIV, diabetes, cancer, people suffering from mental-illness, and many, many other difficulties.

It is also a vital question for everyone, dis-abled or abled, rich or poor, queer or straight, white or Black, trans or cis.

Hostages On a Stuck Bus

Currently, many of the protections of minorities in Western cultures derive from a ‘deal’ made between the powerful and the power-less.  Groups demand rights and protection from the government through long struggles, often violent (on the government’s side more often) until finally the government consents to grant some right or protection to us.  Gay-rights struggles, for instance, have involved a group of people noticing how we’re treated poorly (and killed), demanding recognition after long years of oppression, and then finally ‘winning’ something.   The same is true of every struggle.

And, there’s an unfortunate aspect we don’t bring up much about this.  Each time the government grants protection, recognition, or rights, it gains legitimacy.  Consider–a police force may regularly beat up gays (I’ve seen it personally multiple times), but when a gay person is attacked, what do they do?  They call the police.

Thus, a group of uniformed thugs who are terrible to gays then gets legitimized by gays when we ask them for help.  The same thing happens for Black communities–particularly with the tactic known as ‘de-policing,’ where the police will greatly reduce their response to legitimate calls from Black communities to retaliate after Black protests regarding the shooting of an un-armed Black man.  In essence, it’s the police department thuggishly re-enforcing their legitimacy into communities with very-justified complaints about police behavior, holding victims hostage until they comply.

The government does the same thing, as does the Capitalist class.

An HIV+ person, for instance, is vulnerable on several levels.  Without vital medications, they can find themselves dying from infections most people without HIV wouldn’t even notice.  They rely on anti-retrovirals to keep them alive.

And at current, these are distributed through the Capitalist system. It took decades to even get the government to care about people dying of AIDS, and the situation we have now is pretty horrible.  Pharmaceutical corporations manufacture medications and charge exorbitant prices in order to maintain massive profits.  They’re the only ones who make them; they hold the key to certain people’s survival.

Thus, any disruption to the Capitalist system represents a potentially deadly situation for HIV+ people who are, generally, feared and often hated by the majority of people anyway.  And that sets them in a position where their interests in survival may clash with their recognition that these companies are exploiting them.

Now, consider.  This same thing happens to all of us to some degree.  If you don’t go to work, you cannot eat.  If you cannot eat, you die.

And for people who’ve ‘won’ protections from the government, similar problems occur.  Gay people rely on laws which punish hate-crimes more severely than other crimes.  We get these from the government, and that government supports Capitalism and kills people in the middle-east.  Our interests in survival come in direct conflict with any anti-Capitalist or anti-war sentiments we might have, and occasionally the government will use our status as a protected group to gain our support, as was done during the wars in the early 2000’s.  This happened, too, with women–Laura Bush began calling herself a ‘feminist’ and suddenly one of the justifications for obliterating an entire country was to ‘protect women, just like in America.’

Seeing through such propaganda isn’t easy, especially when the fears closest to our existence are played upon.  If America were on the edge of anti-Capitalist revolt at the moment (it’s not), you can be assured that the fear of what might come after will be on everyone’s lips.

Consider, though.  This means our complicity in the current system, the reason why we don’t fight very hard to change the entire thing, the reason why we settle, the reason why we’ll even fight to protect it, is fear.

We are terrified, and justifiably so.

Nasty, Brutish, and False

I plan to write a few essays on this at some point, but many other writers have already done an incredible job dealing with this terror.

I will describe this problem briefly here, though.  Capitalism both relies upon and actively encourages selfishness.  Each actor in a Capitalist market must assume that their best interests are the only interests, otherwise they’ll suffer.

Consider–you could buy expensive recycled environmentally-friendly toilet paper at personal cost to you, or you can buy cheap unsustainable toilet paper and have money to buy soap, as well.  This same individual reasoning plays out through the whole system, and Capitalism relies upon each person being ‘only out for themself’ in order to continue.

But…this is new.  Really, it is.  Humans may be competitive, yes, but they are also co-operative.  That’s why there are cities (I highly recommend Sannion’s brilliant piece on Aphrodite and love for this).  Also, in apparent calamity, people don’t do what Capitalism needs them to do, they do the opposite (see both Rebecca Solnit‘s essays on this, as well as Alley Valkyrie’s beautiful piece on a black-out in New York City).

And the reasons why we believe humans are only-out-for-themselves are varied, but systematic and ideological.  Calvinism started this, Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Hobbes helped, and then both Social Darwinism (see Crystal Blanton’s great piece on this) and now Evolutionary Psychology all re-inforce these ideas.

We believe that Capitalism is the only way to live not because we have any rational reason to think this, but because it’s been taught, socialized, re-inforced, and terrorised into us.  And we believe no-one will watch out for us or want to help us and we’ll all be left on our own to fight and die if the systems that provide for (and control) us disappear.

But it’s not fucking true, because we already don’t do that, even though it would profit us individually more in the short term.  Most people don’t push people in wheel-chairs into on-coming traffic, few of us would refuse to lend money to a friend in dire need, almost none of us would cut off a person’s life-support, even if we hated them.

But people might do those things for profit.  Thus, we’ve got brutal police, mind-wracked soldiers, callous politicians, and corporations who will hold people’s lives at expensive ransom.  That’s Capitalism, not ‘human nature.’  That’s the system we have now, not the system we want.

The way to get the system we want, one more in-line with love and solidarity will be hard, and it involves building communities that create and provide things outside profit, as well as claiming rights rather than begging for them.  That’s really, really hard fucking work, the stuff we should have started decades ago.

As I said in that piece Jes kindly reminded me of, it seems like an apparently impossible problem. And my life has all been about apparently impossible problems.  And here’s what I wrote last time:

A Winter’s Tale

Photo by Nick Ferro

Photo by Nick Ferro

Wanna hear a story?

There was this moment with a lover of mine, a few winters ago.  We’d gone together to get wax to make candles and the stuff for glühwein (German mulled wine), and we got stuck on a bus in a snowstorm at the bottom of a steep hill.  We’d had little time to do much together, had both been ground-down by our jobs and the difficulties of our relationship and our various lives, and this simple errand had been a beautiful thing to do together, seemingly crushed by a sudden storm.

The bus wasn’t going anywhere.  Cars spun out, slid back down the hill past the bus.  We were gonna be there for hours before the bus would ever start moving again, and it looked like the world was against us, the same way every awesome thing we– both from abject poverty and families rife with mental troubles–ever tried to do would fall apart in the face of impossibility.

Both of our lives, actually, were impossible.  I grew up in abject poverty in Appalachia to an abusive father and a developmentally-disabled (they used to call people with her intelligence quotient “retarded”) mother who later developed schizophrenia.  His mother? Addicted to drugs since he was a child.  He’d tell me a story about being 14 and being left with his 6-month old half-brother for days on end, trying to figure out what to do with a baby while his mother was out drug-seeking.  I’d tell him stories of being in South Florida trying to raise my sisters and pay rent at 14 while my divorced and schizophrenic mother talked back to voices telling her to drive my sisters and I off a bridge into the water.  And it’s funny, because he and I would have arguments about whose childhood was harder (I thought his, he thought mine).

The world’s a fucking impossible place, and we both knew this a little better than most.

And we’re sitting there in this bus as the snow falls and cars slide past us, hitting each other in the great chaos of human effort against nature.  That bus wasn’t fucking going anywhere, but you know what we did?

We got off the bus and walked.

Trudging up that icy hill in a snowstorm, laughing, watching all the silly people in their silly cars trying to get up that hill, catching snowflakes on our tongues, pushing stuck cars on our way up…the impossible is always impossible only if you insist on going on precisely the way you think you’re supposed to.

If we can’t have cars and mass-produced shit and 40-hour work weeks in lifeless jobs without ruining the planet, we can just start walking and making stuff that lasts and working less in more meaningful ways.

If we can’t have smartphones and computer games and 400 television channels and fresh strawberries in winter, then we can write letters and play cards and tell stories and make strawberry jam in the summer.

If we can’t make absurd amounts of money off of selling houses and derivatives and weight-loss programs and plastic toys, then we make absurd amounts of joy and equality in societies where people grow gardens and tend forests and no one gets to ruin other people’s lives on account of having more money than others.

So what if that bus isn’t getting up the hill in the snowstorm?  We can walk up the hill and catch snowflakes on our tongues and warm our winter-chilled bodies with each others’ flesh when we get to the top.

The Way Past the Impossible

Like seeing the Dead and the gods and the spirits, the way past the impossible usually just involves giving up some certainty that is keeping you on a snow-bound bus at the bottom of a hill, some habit, some reliance on an expectation that isn’t serving you any longer.

And yeah, look.  There’s gonna be some resistance.  I’m pretty certain if we’d asked other people on the bus what we should do, they would have pointed to what they were doing and suggested we wait, like them.  The weight of their collective inertia gave us pause–perhaps getting out and climbing the hill was silly?  I mean, we were the only ones doing it.

That is, until we got out.  Others followed us, their own spells broken by our exit.

And there’s gonna be some stronger resistance, I know.  And that shit’s gonna be bloody.  I’m sorry for that.  I wish I could guarantee that there won’t be people so invested in the current system that they’re willing to fight us and maybe even kill us for trying to keep the forests alive.  In fact, I can promise they will be violent, because they’ve already proven themselves willing to kill to get more oil, more coal, more money, more land.  They already crush every attempted resistance to their assaults, be it in slums and on First Nations land in the Americas, the streets in Greece and Italy, the rainforests and campanero lands in South America, the movements for self-rule and resource protection in Africa, the anti-corporate and anti-authoritarian protests in Asia and the anti-colonial struggles in the Middle East and everywhere.

They’ve got plenty of guns, and usually don’t even need to use them against us because we’re so beaten down already we don’t have the will to resist.

“I’m so sorry for what is coming,” said the voice of an unwilling oracle around a fire this summer.  I’ve heard this from others, too–Others, I mean.   The visions, the fires, the dead gathered at gates, the floods, the cities destroyed, the warnings, the chastisement for Forgetting, the undine at the pool, the screams of the land spirits, the shaking off of the revelers from the body of the god, all the violence–fuck.

You can carry a rucksack full of wax and wine up a snowy hill with your lover and laugh and make mulled wine and warm yourself and each other with the love falling like rain and snow from the skies.  You can read by the light of burning barricades and plant chamomile in the cracked pavement and tell stories of what it was like when we thought we should ignore the gods and the dead.

We can side with the poor and the streams and forests and crows and the forgotten, because there’s so many of us, you know, and we have the best stories.

And we can start building now.  Actually, we must.  If we’re to counter their violence with something other than violence, a game we can never win, we must create the world we want now. A world full of gods, a world of remembered dead, a world others want to join and help create, one that doesn’t flood the cities and poison the waters and raze the forests and abuse women or favor one skin color over all others.

The first step’s easy.

You just have to leave the stuck bus, and make sure you help others up the hill on your way.

 


What Comes After

“And some,” I said, “come back wielding light against that darkness. Seeing nothing, we bring back fire, we light lamps, candles, torches. We hold light that isn’t ours, as how else would anyone else see?”
We See the Darkness


Lag_BaOmer_bonfire

 

I say uncomfortable things.

There are other people you can read, you know.  I heard of a piece where a high-waged Pagan worker at a tech company explains how we should stop worrying about how bad the world is.  Another piece will help you get more money, or bring in more energy to your altar.

You can read people who will tell you that composting a little more will help you get closer to The Goddess, or will explain to you how we can all get along if we just center a little more.  There are whole traditions that will help you get in contact with ascended witch-teachers who will make your life more fulfilling, or teach you to summon beings to do things on your behalf.

I don’t teach spirituality, you’ve probably noticed.  Almost everything I’ve learned is piecemeal, given to me by friends and gods.  I’m a bard, not a magician or a witch or an ascended master–I can’t teach you how to get a raise or get your lover to stop cheating on you or increase the value of your home.

If anything, I’m a skald of the darkness, a bard of Annwn.  Devoted to a goddess who drowns children, another goddess who cares more for the poor than the wealthy, another goddess who will strip you of everything, and a god whose head, still-dripping blood, was buried not to give wealth, but to protect the weak.  And yet another god, whose followers were often slaves and rebels, whose cults were stamped-out because the powerful feared them and him.

I’m from the forest–not the pristine wilderness you visit on weekends to ‘find yourself,’ but the caverns and gulleys filled with human trash, surrounded by barbed wire and oil pipelines, polluted by your cars.

And I’m from the streets–not the wide boulevards you stroll down to go shopping, but the piss-soaked sidewalks and alleys where the homeless people you ignore build homes from cardboard and villages beneath your distracted gaze.

I’m from The Commons, not the market.  I’ve no money to buy from you the stuff you sell, no coin to donate to your venerable causes. The most valuable things I possess were given me, not bought from local artisans.  I wear a wooden spear-tip given to me by a friend, fill my pockets with found rocks, read books gifted to me by the people who wrote them, ride a bike I had to beg to pay a little for, worship at an altar given to me by one who maybe never expected how much it’d mean to me.  Nothing of meaning to me cost in coin.

I’m from the uneducated poor, not the academies of the bourgeoisie.  All I know I learned in books, or from people.  I hung with high-school drop-out punks reading Baudrillard and Zizek, frustrated old-men and poor-but-fabulous single mothers whose degrees never earned them a penny and would teach us for free.  I’ve stolen books to find the knowledge therein, locked up behind prices which proclaimed, ‘this is not for you.’

This is me, and why I’m so uncomfortable.

And yet you read me, and ask me to hold your hand as the darkness I show you settles in, the horrors you’ve ignored are finally unveiled.  It’s okay, really–I know the monsters which hunt us, and the evil you’re just seeing in what you thought was a compassionate life.

I can hold your hand for a bit, yes.

But not forever.

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul
–Emily Dickinson

The world underneath the world you thought you knew looks brutal, I know.  I’m sorry.  Like a foreign city and you don’t know the language, but worse–you’re just now realizing you’re the reason it got bombed and all the people here are poor.  The polluted stream where I sat was poisoned by the way you get to work–that’s not an easy thing to realize, like finding out you accidentally killed a kitten.

And it’s really tempting to go back, huh?  I’ve heard this–but I’ve nowhere to go back to, so there’s nothing I miss.

And most of all, it’s really tempting to blame me.  I guess I get this, too, like how people blame the dead Black man for showing us all how racist we’ve been, or the homeless woman on the street for reminding you that Capitalism grinds us all into dust.

It’s like we’ve all been drunk and are starting to sober up.  You seen DT’s, the addicted-body’s deadly-reaction to the absence of a deadly-poison?  That shit can kill you–I’m sorry.  Often we’ll see it in social work and offer them a beer to help ease them back into an equilibrium that is mostly just an unfortunate ‘normal.’  It’s called harm-reduction–keep the alcoholic safe so they don’t hurt themselves or others.  And in that moment, they’re most angry, having seen the abyss.

Once in awhile, though, you’ll find the person who’s done.  They withdraw, we worry.  We’ll offer them alcohol because we’re afraid the trauma of reality might kill them.  But no–they refuse.  “I’m done,’ they’ll say, sometimes after 40 years of addiction.

And to everyone’s surprise, they were done.  They stopped, and four years later they’re still refusing to hide in oblivious half-bliss, seeing now the horrors they ignored, understanding the lie their life was built upon, and as Marx said, “at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

I won’t question why you still read me, despite how uncomfortable these words make you.  You can stop anytime, you know, go back to not-knowing.

Or maybe you can’t, because you’ve seen the abyss now, how our lifestyles are sustained on the backs of slaves and the poisoning of forests and how, you, too, have been imprisoned in gilded cages, surrounded by shiny things which opiate your pain.

I assure you, though–there’s a way through the Abyss, and what comes after is brilliant, and what you return with is even more beautiful, and no-one will need to hold your hand any longer, but they might want you to hold theirs.

 


The Spirit of Poverty

Francisco_de_Zurbarán_-_St_Francis_-_WGA26075

Poverty of Body

The virtues of the poor may be readily admitted, and are much to be regretted. We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so.
–Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

I was recently in a discussion regarding Compassion, within a class addressing the difficulties one incurs upon becoming ‘public,’ considered, by no necessary fault of your own, a ‘leader.’ The question posed was rather simple–“what challenges most your Compassion?” and I laughed, as I’d been thinking about this matter for weeks.

My answer?

“Holding the hands of middle-class people, coddling them, softening my words and critiques in order to ease them oh-so-gently into an understanding that the homeless person screaming profanities at them is suffering from the same system that makes them middle-class.”

Do forgive me here–there’s a bit of anger in those words, but not nearly the seething rage warranted in such discussions.  In fact, that’s me being really polite about how I’ve felt lately, trying to talk to Pagans about Capitalism.

I’m stealing a bit of time from work as I write this, work where I ‘counsel’ people who’ve been homeless for more years than I’ve been an adult, people suffering from mental-illness and chemical dependency and worse, years of becoming socialized as less-than-human in societies which refuse to look at their own shit.

I’m sometimes tempted to ask some of them what they think about Capitalism or money-in-religion or whether pouring money into legislative campaigns to protect the environment is the best way to stop Climate Change, but this is outside of my job description and anyway, I wouldn’t be able to quote them.

The question I’d love to ask most though right now, the question burning on my lips that I think they’d be most able to answer is inspired by a post I saw today.  That question?  Would a material change or a spiritual change better improve your circumstances and your life on this earth?

Years on the street rather damaged these folk; lack of resources, no housing, long months and years without healthy food and access to medical care, unstable social groups, vulnerability to disease, rape, exploitation, rough cops and asshole business owners would probably skew their answers.

Similarly, though–what about those living in favelas and ghettos and shanty-towns across the world?  I wonder which they might favor; spiritual transformation as the way to save the world, or maybe a little more to eat?

I’d prefer not to speak for the poor, as my income is about 30 times what an average Haitian makes per year.  They make about $800, this year I’ll make about $25,000.

That number, by the way, is something we don’t talk much about.  In America particularly, the income of others is a verboten topic.  It’s impolite to talk about how much you make, and definitely impolite to ask someone how much they make.  If you’re on the upper scales of income, it might cause envy or competition amongst your friends who make less.  If you’re on the lower end, it becomes an embarrassment.

But there it is.  $25,000 before taxes. 40% of the ‘median income’ of Seattle, where rents for one-bedrooms start at about $1000 (average price in my neighborhood is $1500–needless to say, I don’t live alone).

Last year, by the way, I made about half of this, including the donations I received through my blog and from people who helped me attend last year’s Polytheist Leadership Conference and my pilgrimage to Newgrange.  (Thank you all, again).

I confess my income here for a couple of reasons.  One, it’s quite relieving to admit it in a public forum.  When you earn less than many of your friends and colleagues, you sort of do a lot of pretending that you can afford stuff because it’s expected of you.

Two, some people think I’m poorer than I am–street punks particularly mistake me often for ‘one of them.’  Probably because I wear torn cloths (I can’t afford to own more than a couple of sets of clothing), talk like them (it’s a bourgeois rule that we shouldn’t say ‘fuck), and hell, I talk to them like they’re human, because they are.  I’m not afraid of them, I hang out with them, and hell–I used to sleep out there with them.

Another thing you should know about me is that I grew up in poverty.

Wait, though–many of us say that, because wealth often appears relative.  My friends who make $50,000 a year feel poor in Seattle (which should make me ‘twice-as-poor’, but it doesn’t work that way), so it’s better to explain the circumstances of my upbringing rather than just say ‘I was poor.’

I was born in the foothills of Appalachia in south-east Ohio.  I mentioned this elsewhere–we lived 6 miles away from a leaking nuclear power plant which caused both my papaw (grandfather) and uncle to die of massive brain tumors.  We lived in a draughty A-frame house owned by a relative with an open sewer.  We had a van on cinder-blocks which we used as a storage shed.  My father had no work most of the time; he sometimes siphoned gas out of other people’s cars in order to go look for work or drive the 30 miles ‘into town’ for our once-a-month grocery store trip with paper-food stamps.  Most of our food, however, got delivered by a truck once a week, brown non-descript boxes of ‘government cheese’ and white boxes of powdered-milk and bags of enriched rice.

That’s how we ate.  We were basically vegetarian except at the first of the month when we had discounted ground-beef or when someone poached a deer or a wild turkey.

In the winter, we burned wood that my father cut down off of his mother’s land when he could afford the gasoline for the chainsaw.  But much of that land had already been stripped and she didn’t want us cutting down all the trees (who could blame her), so we applied for heating assistance for the state.  Usually they brought wood; two years they brought coal.

Those years were horrible, because coal leaves everything in your house black, and isn’t supposed to be burned in a wood-stove anyway, you and your little sisters and your developmentally-disabled mother and your out-of-work father all cramped in a house with an open sewer outside, a massive hole in the bathroom floor no one could afford to fix (we stepped over particle-board to shit, but that broke and one of us fell through, but only down to the dirt foundation of the house, about three feet).  It was so fucking cold in that bathroom with wind coming through that open floor and we couldn’t take a bath in the winter because of it, but we were lucky because we at least had running water.

That’s what I mean by poor.  I wore the same underwear from the time I was 7 until I was 12 despite the fact that I’d grown significantly from that time, because underwear was a luxury we couldn’t afford.  So was healthcare and the dentist.  You ever see my teeth?  You most likely won’t.  Go back through every photo you’ve seen of me online and try to find depictions of them.

I’ll give you a few minutes there.

I’ll tell you one more thing about that time, or actually something that I recently learned from that time.  It came when my siblings and I were talking about what we remembered from our childhood.  One of them said (and I started crying), “all I remember is how hungry we always were.”  One of them still sets aside a portion of her meal, even as she’s much older and much better off than we’d ever been in those days, just in case there’s nothing to eat later, because we never knew if there would be and there often wasn’t. Not eating everything at a meal meant that when hunger hit you later you at least had something.

My reaction was different.  When I finally had access to food, I over-ate.  I was a huge adolescent, 280 pounds at 17 because I was working and could finally afford to eat.  And I did–like fucking mad, making up for a childhood of absence, of hunger.

It took years to teach my body that I wasn’t going to starve again, to train myself not to stuff as much food into my stomach as I could fit (and then some), to undo decades of fear that I’d have to go long weeks of powdered milk and government-supplied rice.

That’s what I mean by poverty.

Poverty of Spirit

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. …All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
–Marx and Engles, The Communist Manifesto

Someone asked me why I’m always so angry even when I’m doing so ‘well.’  Another person suggested I had a ‘dark shadow’ looming over me which made me approach others in rage rather than ‘compassion.’  Yet a third questioned why my critiques of Capitalism were out of line ‘with love’ and instead seemed to come from a spirit of criticism, using ‘hurtful’ words instead of ‘helpfully building community.’

But whose community? Whose idea of ‘well?  Whose idea of love?

Since becoming ‘public’ or even an inadvertent ‘leader’ (by which I suspect we really mean antagonist) in Pagan spaces, I’ve met some rather incredible people, full of magic and beauty and love for the world.  Most of ’em have been as poor as me, at least for some part of their life.  They’re usually the ones you’ll find protesting another death, or building a homeless camp, or fundraising for poor people, or building mutual-aid networks, or offering free teaching, or being so fucking busy helping people they’ll never have money.

I’ve met some others, unfortunately.  Most of them are called ‘leaders’ too, often of entire traditions, or occupying mediated spaces of public voice regardless of what they know.  A lot of them have money and are eager to make more, eager to sell you things, or sell you ways to make money, or gain power, or sell you secrets the gods and spirits and dead will teach you for free.

And some of those people write things about what we all ‘need’ to do.  We need more love and compassion and hope and magic.  Some of ’em will tell you that ‘poor magicians are poor magicians’ (that is, a witch who’s poor isn’t a very good witch).  Some of them will awkwardly hold lopsided print-outs that say ‘White privilege exists’ because someone else coerces them into it.  Some of them run courses where you can learn to better bring wealth into your personal sphere, or will write sage pieces about how we all need to live in more compassion with the earth and the animals and trees, or how to attain peace and unity with the divine.

But I will tell you this–if they aren’t poor but are telling you how to be more ‘compassionate’ and ‘magical’ or how to build a ‘Pagan Future’ or stop climate change, they don’t know what they’re fucking talking about.

Have a statistic:

“people in the U.S. who earned more than $75,000 emitted nearly four times as much C02 as those who earned less than $10,000.”

See that?  I could march those out like an army of the dead from the Cauldron of Annwn if you like.  Here’s another one, though:

A single average US citizen emits more than 500 citizens of Ethiopia, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, or Burundi.

You see why American Pagans suggesting a ‘change of spirit’ or ‘more compassion’ or ‘loving the goddess’ seems a bit false?

It’s because Capitalism is the problem, and so are we, if we don’t fight it. 

I say ‘we’ all the time, but I’m on the low-end of that collective ‘we.’  Let’s be clear on that–I barely even belong in the white Pagan spaces I enter, nor in the discourses where we talk about what to do about this.  Though I happen to appear to be a college-educated middle-class white male (that’s what privilege does, folks), I’d actually belong with the broken-teethed trailer-dwelling backwoods racist white guy railing about how Odin’s just for white guys–I’m in their income bracket

And do not be mistaken–the same Capitalist system that kills black men every 28 hours in America drives the poor white man into the arms of racialist ideologues and is the exact same Capitalism that is destroying the earth.

In the piece that inspired this post, John Halstead suggests that Alley Valkyrie (and by extension, Marx) gets things wrong about what needs to be done to fix our mess:

“So, I agree with Alley that working toward a shift in consciousness is not sufficient by itself.  But likewise, neither do I believe that changing our economic system will be sufficient by itself.”

Look.  I’ve been known in the past to take issue with John’s writing, but he’s actually on to something that he may not realise he’s on to.

His reading of Marx is quite wrong, but he admits, too, that he’s oversimplifying.   And I hope the irony’s not lost on anyone that a Polytheist is arguing for the primacy of the material against a Humanist urging a spiritual shift.  Maybe it’s because I interact with a myriad of gods and spirits that I’m hyper-aware of how fucked up our economic system is–the gods don’t deal in coins and wealth and wages, yet humans unfortunately do.

And let me be very clear–John never utters any of the ridiculous self-exalting shit you’ll hear from the goddess-and-light crowd.   He’s one of the few you can always count on never to go new-age/inner-peace on you. That, more than anything, is why we need Humanists around.

But–it is our economic system which is fucked.  It’s sustained in place by modern myths of progress and the modern disease of disenchantment, which is why it’s hard for any of us to see the gods and why we’re so spiritually desolate.  If you’re going to argue that anything should change, start there, ’cause you can do all the yoga you want, it won’t stop the rape of the planet until you change the conditions of humanity.

Capitalism didn’t start when people stopped loving the land.  It started when people were pushed off the land, forced off The Commons into factories to wage their time money.  The poor didn’t stop revering the forests; they were pushed out of them.  Now they’re crammed in cities where they never even see the stars, let alone the wild.

Likewise, the machines fueled by coal which has warmed our planet–those weren’t for the poor.   Those machines were built for the rich to make more money off of the labor of the poor.  The poor tried to destroy those machines with the help of Ludd; now we’re thumbing our smartphones and driving our cars and pretending we’re not complicit in all this death.

Give Everything To Be Poor

But for all of this, John’s right.  A shift of consciousness is required, just one bigger than he suspects.

What’s required is one on par with what happened to St. Francis of Assisi when he first found the divine.  That mad joy-struck monk not only gave away everything he owned, he also gave away almost everything his father owned, selling his merchant-families wares at a loss in order to rebuild a shrine.  And then he never sought money or wages again, instead eating only what was given to him and preferring rotted scraps over hot meals.

Again, you know who isn’t warming the earth and melting the glaciers and exploiting children in factories?  The fucking poor.  The ‘humility’ some priests talk about, the ‘community’ others urge, the ‘love of the goddess’ yet more suggest that we need is true, they just don’t know how terrifyingly true.

How much do you really need?  How much of this shit is worth destroying the planet?  Is your nice condo in the city worth the death of black men?  Your tech job–is it worth the rivers of poison in China?  Your car–are you comfortable with your complicity in the destruction of forests and the warming of the earth?  Your organic strawberries–are they worth the near-enslavement of brown people?

I’ve never been comfortable with it.

But, then again, I grew up poor.  Despite all the horrors of my childhood, I’m fucking glad of it, because I know you can survive on nothing.  I also know that the hunger I endured and the coal-soot in the winter and my grandfather’s brain tumor and our open sewer was all only just a taste of what feeds the voracious hunger of Capitalism.

I’m really glad John Halstead suggested this change of consciousness.  And it’s time for the Spirit of Poverty to catch on, because otherwise we’re slaughtering each other, glutted upon the waged-time of those below us, the poisoned rivers and the carnage while telling each other pretty lies.

 


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