While working on the first chapter of my work on Pagan Anti-Capitalism, I encountered an interesting thing I’d forgotten about for awhile. As Capitalism is a Socially-Real system (that is, created and enforced by social interactions) and not a naturally-derived system (that is, it does not appear to mimic any other physical or social processes observed within nature, barring some clunky and agenda-ridden attempts to re-work biological evolutionary theory into social processes), it exists as Artifice (that is, “created.”)
In attempting to disambiguate both Nature/Natural (if you think it’s difficult to talk about the gods amongst Pagans, wait ’till Paganism has enough intellectual work to tackle inherited notions of Natural Law from the Enlightenment…), and to extricate Capitalism from Exchange (that is, Capitalism is a form of Exchange, not Exchange itself), I found myself confronted with that thing I’d forgotten about.
No other living thing systematically engages in Symbolic Exchange or Trade. I’ve read some attempts to compare human linguistic activity to the communications amongst other species and find them fascinating, but the realms of Meaning ascribed to those sounds (that is, the symbolic behind the signal) are particularly human and extend beyond linguistic activity into entire spheres of activity and transform the whole of human (or human-as-animal or human-as-part-of-nature) relations and behavior. Ideology, Theology, Philosophy and general ontological systems can radically change human activity.
Another thing which has gotten me thinking about this matter is John Halstead’s recent post on The Allergic Pagan where he explores the potential of a Devotional Practice with the World at its Center. Ignoring the unfortunate comparison of devotional polytheists to “evangelicals” (the original language said Pagan polytheists, but at another writer’s insistence, this was changed to become more directed in its aggression), there’s a lot worth considering here for Paganism in general, particularly concerning the affective nature of belief and the difficulty in crafting religious systems from within a specific social reality.
Belief is amongst the categories of symbol and meaning which affect the activities of humans. Belief in divine beings alters the actions of individuals and groups to be in accord with those systems of Meaning, just as belief in no such thing (a positive statement, as Atheism and Theism both make assertions about the existence of gods, rather than a Agnostic or apathetic stance) likewise compels behavior in accordance to that system of meaning.
A couple of questions come about from this. First of all, why did the majority of intellectual critiques of Capitalism insist on A-theism? Historically I suspect this derives more from whom was taken seriously as intellectuals during the 1800’s then from a necessary stance. Also, western society has secular pretenses to cover its deep racist and imperialist stance, and while there’ve been religious and indigenous critiques of Capitalism since its nascence, none would ever make it into a textbook anymore than folks like Vandana Shiva or Arundhati Roy get any press beyond certain media outlets. All of that is to say–Marxists and Anarchists are not and need not be inherently Atheist, despite the theological stance of some of their early intellectual proponents.
Secondly, the materialist/secular stance is incomplete as a critique of Capitalism. Both Hegelian and Marxist Materialism have become quite divorced from their original critiques and instead seem to infect quite a few modern intellectuals who attempt to use it as a continued critique of society without its context. Consider the “radical” feminism of Deep Green Resistance, which posits not an endless variation of gender but the end of gender altogether as a way of destroying what they see as the root of ecological damage–not Capitalism and Industrialisation, but Patriarchy. This is no more rooted in historical truth then some Pagan ideas of an early, peaceful Matriarchal society, and, worse, it posits that transgendered and queer folks are really playing into the Patriarchy by embracing gender fluidity.
The mess of logic here has less to do, I suspect, with the personal positions of the folks involved in such messy translations of radical theories into de-contextualized nightmares; rather, I think it derives from untethering concepts from their contexts. In some arguments about polytheism, such untethering has led to endless frustration in which words are said to “lose” their meaning. What is really being said in those (very valid) complaints, however, is that concepts are losing their context. When someone describes themself as polytheist and yet does not believe in the existence of gods, what has happened is not necessarily a willful appropriation of the term “polytheist” but rather a failure to understand that polytheist is the word used to describe a particular thing.
Any sound can be linked to any particular thing, of course. That being said, the purpose of that sound (its symbolic function) is to refer to (that is, to be a symbolic representation of) a specific thing, be it a physical object or an ideological category. I can just as easily refer to myself as a transperson, a person-of-color, or an Atheist, yet by doing so I’ve untethered those symbols from the things they represent. That is, in the Symbolic Realm (the Social-Real), I am an aggressor against Meaning, regardless of whether I intend to be, because I am none of those things.
This sort of thing spirals endlessly outward the further away we get from the context of any particular categorical critique. Consider Privilege. Starting as a critique of Whiteness and Maleness, it’s become divorced from its original referents and now means very little because it can apply to anything (I was recently told that I have a significant amount of privilege as someone who has been poor my entire life, because that poverty confers privilege). Worse, it makes actual criticisms of actual oppressive behavior lost in a mire of subjective arguments where the complaints cannot be heard because the words used refer to no-thing.
Belief and the Bourgeoisie
What fascinates me particularly about the untethering of Privilege from its context is that many of the complaints are quite valid, but fail to acknowledge a simpler category because it’s generally verboten in American discourse: Class. Much of the systematic oppression which Privilege is used to address fits squarely within the traditional description of Bourgeoisie, even within Pagan contexts. The discussions of Wiccanate Privilege, for instance, might have been better served by pointing out that the context in which many (white, middle class–that is, bourgeois) people organize gatherings for Pagans and speak on behalf of other Pagans is a place of assumption of normality, a defining characteristic of the Bourgeoisie. Many of the Naturalist vs. Polytheist debates likewise could be better described as such, as it is a uniquely bourgeois insistence that the secular modalities which sustain Capitalism (and their position of power) must be the truth by which all other truths are measured. Anything apparently anti-thetical to the continuation of the bourgeoisie, then, must be fought off, silenced or belittled, depending on the apparent threat.
Monotheism and its eventual secular facade (including Evolutionary Psychology, which despite its anti-Christian stance benefits from and utilizes many of the stances on Nature developed by Protestants) allowed for the creation of the Bourgeosie and continues to sustain their existence as a class, crowning them as the moderate center of society against which all else is aberration. Polytheistic beliefs and practices which predate the bourgeoisie by millenia were not seen as much of a threat during the age of enlightenment, as anyone who embraced them were part of the same category of people (subaltern peoples whose stories do not appear in the grand narrative of western society even as they lived through it all) who had no political voice except violence or revolt. Similar, as well, to the gender trans(gressive) or sexual deviant, even when they sometimes existed within the same class as the Bourgeoisie.
The fact that we’ve either collectively abandoned, forgotten, or ignored the existence of the Bourgeoisie in religious and gender debates significantly contributes to the difficulties in our discussions. Modern Environmentalism for instance, is awfully bourgeois, as it attempts to re-inscribe critiques of Capitalism into a Liberalism (Liberalism is essential to Capitalism) which does not affect the existence or status of the Bourgeoisie. In the same way, some Naturalists can be said to be doing the same thing, attempting to create a Paganism which does not challenge the conditions upon which their material existence is predicated.
This isn’t to say that Naturalism or Environmentalism should be abandoned or seen as false. Rather, I suspect both could benefit greatly from addressing this problem and find themselves transformed into something more radical. For Environmentalism, this should be obvious, as it began as a critique of Capitalism until it became defanged in order to meet the demands of the bourgeoisie (hybrid cars, changing lightbulbs but not actually changing economic behavior or dominance). For Naturalists, it’s a bit more murky, but I would think addressing the function of belief would be invaluable to help them become a sustainable position.
That is, if belief in an Other (whether that be an immanent or archetypal Other) does not change the actual conditions of existence but rather justifies a current existence, then it might be constrained by class considerations. Back to Marx–one of the more significant critiques of religion was that it helped justify the physical suffering and exploitation of the poor and served as a pain-reliever (opiate denoted anesthetic rather than stupefactant, again why the tethering of words matters) for them without addressing the underlying causes. Polytheism and Animism both present powerful criticisms to the foundation of Bourgeois existence by addressing its Protestant/Secular reality. I suspect it’d be possible for Naturalism to do the same, if it can abandon its bourgeois restraints. And if it does so, it could be quite a powerful thing and avoid the fate of other religious tendencies which have sacrificed their radical potentiality on the altar of Capitalism. And if Naturalism can avoid that fate, I suspect Polytheists and Naturalists would be able to work together as separate aspects of the same alignment, rather then the current position pitting Radical critiques against Re-inscription into bourgeois ideals.
But as a good friend points out, I’m kind of naive sometimes.