Return for a moment to our historical conception of the coming of Monotheism to the Pagan lands of Europe. In each place the specifically Christian form of Monotheism confronted indigenous beliefs, there was violence. But violence is not always bloody, and this is a point we must remember when confronting the disenchanted, Western Capitalist system in which we currently live.
We’re most familiar, of course, with its direct, physical forms—that is, the violence of the blade or the bullet or the fist, all aggressions which cause physical pain, injury, or death. In the history of conversions to Monotheism in Europe and elsewhere, such incidents stand out most.
There are other forms, however, and I apologize for this example in advance. Conceive, if you will, of yourself standing with a best friend. An aggressor appears and demands something of you. You refuse. The aggressor then blows the head off of your companion, points the gun at you, and repeats the initial demands.
In this case, you have experienced violence, though none has been directed at you. Instead, there is both an implied violence (the gun pointed at your body) and indirect violence (the murder of someone for whom you cared deeply). And, more so, you are quite likely to find yourself willing to cede to the aggressor’s demands.
In Hegemony, a powerful sovereign rules over other states through indirect and implied violence. Each weaker state within the sphere of influence of the Hegemon acts in accordance to the will of the Hegemon, altering its behavior in order to avoid the implied violence of the powerful center.
Hegemony does not require direct violence, nor does the Hegemonic power need to enact direct violence in order to compel others to do its will. Occasional uses of direct violence are sufficient to prove its power to others, just as it was enough for the United States to obliterate two cities in Japan in order for the rest of the world to understand the consequences of refusing to comply with American policy. Typically, when direct violence is used, it is particularly brutal and overwhelming, in order to make sure the threat is understood.
When we consider the spread of Monotheism we should consider again the stories we tell ourselves about these conversions. While, certainly, there were uncounted incidents of direct violence against unbelievers and infidels, it would have been impossible for Monotheism to spread if it killed every potential convert.
Simultaneously, we should avoid a modern mistake when considering these conversions. It’s become fashionable to speak of ideologies and beliefs as existing outside of human experience, competing through evolutionary processes. Ideas which survive were the fittest, while those which fell away were unable to adapt to the needs of the humans who no longer found need of them, like prehensile tails or intestinal appendices.
But we should remember this is a new logic, an ad hoc justification, and an utter misuse of evolutionary theory. Beliefs don’t exist outside of those who believe them (that is, beliefs are human actions), and while we humans are certainly capable of rationally weighing the truth-content of conflicting ideologies and religious structures, other concerns enter our mental processes and sway us towards one idea or another. Swords, invading armies, imminent starvation, and other threats of violence are awfully useful in arguments.
Monotheism did not present itself as an esoteric theory to be debated and weighed on its merits alone. Monotheism was born not on the winds, but on the lips, in the sword-arms, and in the change-purses of the powerful. The conversion of a village, of a kingdom, or of an entire people should not be mistaken as a mere question of religious choice; rather, it was, for countless peoples, one of survival.
Again, consider: though most conversions to Monotheism could be said to have been “voluntary,” we must recognize that what appears to be self-initiated is not always so. External pressures (including the desire to survive) factor into our decisions, just as any state within the sphere of influence acts “voluntarily” according to the will of the Hegemon.
Or, return to the unfortunate example I introduced earlier. Your best friend has been killed in front of you, and the person who did it is pointing a gun at your chest. You can certainly “volunteer” to do what the aggressor demands, but this is hardly what we call free-will.
All-One or None
Beyond all the violence of Monotheistic conversion, though, we confront another problem. At least superficially, the religious forms of a small heretical cult in Palestine don’t quite seem particularly well-suited to the experiences of people in sub-Saharan Africa, or of Northern Europe, nor of the southern Americas or Asia. Yet somehow, the worship of a resurrected desert-god replicated itself in all those places.
How, then, could a theology which denies the existence of multiple gods and replaces them with the belief in only One God adapt itself so thoroughly to the varied experiences of so many different groups? The answer is, again, within the very nature of Monotheism, but we need to expand our conception of it in order to explain this problem.
There’s this…soap, or it purports to be. It’s a liquid glycerine quite popular with hippies and earthy-types, claims to be equally effective as a mouthwash as it is for dish-washing and laundry, and somehow utterly fails to get you clean. It’s called Dr. Bronner’s , and inscribed in tiny print all over the bottle is the quintessential logic of monotheism: All-One or None.
Monotheism does not just assert the existence of One (and only one) god, it also claims that there is but one way to access that particular and solitary Divine. This insistence on The One requires a universalizing of religious belief which can then be applied to each individual within the whole, so that no individual can exist outside it.
We should remember that the institutions which functioned as the enforcers of doctrine and belief, each answering through the hierarchy of the Church, were spread throughout each place that Monotheism took hold. These churches comprised parts of the Catholic—that is, universal—Church. And within this Universality, we have yet again the logic of Monotheism—that is, Universal means the All-One, or a one which applies equally in all instances. Again. All-One or None.
But in order for One thing to apply in all circumstances, it must be either reduced (so that it is the lowest common denominator), or the situations to which it is to apply must be reduced or abstracted. For one system to apply to all peoples, the individual experiences which do not conform to the universal must be ignored or destroyed.
Consider: if I state, “all living things require air,” I must ignore anaerobic bacteria in my conception of “all.” Or, in the social realm, if I say “all humans are, by nature, selfish,” I must ignore every instance of humans who are not selfish, or find a way to describe apparently non-selfish humans as actually being selfish (and therein is the entire modus operandi of modern “evolutionary psychology.”)
In both cases, a more accurate statement might be “some are this, but some are instead this” (i.e., Most life requires air, some does not; “some humans are quite selfish, others are not.”) But within certain scientific and political philosophies, and also within Monotheism, the method of dealing with difference is to deny or transmute it into same-ness so that universalization can occur.
We can see how this happened particularly in Christian Monotheism. Gods, spirits, and ancestors, acknowledged for centuries by people in varied places, became re-inscribed into this new universalist theory as syncretized saints or demons. Sacred oaks were cut down, shrines and temples destroyed, and in their place were built new edifices for the worship of the One-God. The theological differences became subsumed into this universal logic, but were not always destroyed.
Older, different forms which could not be subsumed or transmuted, however, became illegal, and the letters, missives, and bulls issued by the clerics of Christianity against these practices provide great insight into so-called “Pagan survivals.” And, of course, sometimes the consequences of continuing these practices were deadly, but we must remember that only a powerful, Hegemonic aggressor need only enact just-enough violence in order to gain compliance from its subjects.
Likewise, other traditional systems needed to be transformed or destroyed. Parish priests replaced priests, druids, and other spiritual leaders, and social forms (temporary marriages, birth-and-death rituals, etc.) which were incompatible with hegemonic, monotheistic control were destroyed. We need not look so far into the past for examples of this, either, for it is the same process which occurs currently in Africa and other “missions fields.”
Like a plague sweeping across the world, this universalizing logic destroyed not just the ancient social, cultural, and spiritual forms of the people it colonized, it then subsumed them into their own. All differences were either destroyed or assimilated (“re-inscribed”) into a universality of existence in which every person could become subject to The One. And, again, it was not necessary for the bearers of the new Catholic, universalizing, all-one-or-none Monotheism to use violence each time they encountered the believers in many gods. They needed to use just-enough violence, and the rest of our ancestors did the calculations necessary to know what was meant by holding onto the old ways.
A More Efficient Severance
Forward with me several centuries, if you will, to beginning of a new system of economic arrangement which has become even more Catholic and Universal than the Popes and priests ever dared dream might become of their religion.
Precisely when and where Capitalism was “born” is difficult to say, just as pinpointing the precise start of a war is difficult. Rather, one looks for the catalytic point (the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as the catalyst for World War I, for instance) without denying all the processes and pressures before that moment and the birthing pangs after.
It seems likely, however, that it occurred in the English countryside in the early 1700’s during the passage of the Enclosure. Though it did not cause Capitalism anymore than the assassination of the Archduke caused the millions of dead to litter the European continent, Enclosure was probably the last necessary thing, the specific catalyst for the alchemical transmutation which has now infected the entire world.
The Enclosure acts created in England a market in land which had not existed before. Previously, the thaumaturgic forces we associated with the “market” and “the invisible hand” did not and could not affect the most crucial aspect of human existence–land itself. Whether serf or peasant, the ability to live and farm upon land was more than sacrosanct–it was so integrated into existence as to be not a thing at all. Certainly, one might be displaced by war or famine, one might live on feudal land ruled over (but not “owned” as we now understand it) by lords or kings or chiefs, but land was not a object to be bought and sold. Even rents and tariffs were not subject to market forces, and simple logics affected their imposition. Too high and the peasants revolted by refusing to pay, left the land altogether, or showed up at the gates of the landlord with sharp pieces of metal. Likewise, the lords of such land, while certainly governed by their own greed and desire for wealth, could only rely on direct violence to extract more from the people who lived on their land.
With Enclosure, land became partitioned off, became something now to be bought and sold (and only accessible through property-relations). It also became commodity, subject to all the forces of the market which determined prices and availability of another crucial aspect of human survival, food. Food and land are intrinsically linked–there are only two legally available ways to obtain food, and that is to buy it or grow it. Without access to land, the only way to obtain food is through the market, and to access the market, one must have money.
Suddenly, then, the very means of survival of humans in England became dependent upon a decision which was hardly a choice at all. As rents went up and people could no longer use common land, people were faced with the choice to work in the new mills and factories in exchange for money to buy food, or starve. This is what is meant by “freedom of choice” in Capitalism–work for others or starve–and there is an inherent violence to this choice that we should tease out in order to understand the contours of hegemonic rule.
There are technically other options besides “work” or “starve.” One may certainly steal food the markets, or from neighbors or wealthy land-owners, but inherent to this act is the threat of violence again. If one is caught, the victim might enact violence upon the thief, or in “democratic” and “modern” societies, the thief will have violence enacted upon her by the state. And we should note–the birth of modern Property then birthed a sudden deluge of new laws against “property crime” (Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish significantly tracks this explosion of new crimes).
One can certainly also beg for food, demanding charity and kindness from those around one in order to survive. There is not much dignity in such an act, and if those around you are subject to the same pressures as the beggar, it challenges not only their own character but their very survival, which is why it’s quite difficult for me to be generous to beggars on the street when I am uncertain of my own sustenance.
None of these, though, are choices made of one’s own “free-will,” and we should note that the decisions the majority of English peasants made in such circumstances is not altogether different from those made by our ancestors when confronting Monotheism.
And I’d like to return to a particular aspect of the birth of Capitalism through Enclosure which should strike deeply any Pagan wondering at the processes which severed us from our ancestral religions. Enclosure was, first and foremost, about land. The creation of land-as-property led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, and then to millions as Capitalism spread from the Isle of the Mighty to the rest of Europe, infecting the subjugated peoples of European colonies in the Americas and Africa.
The gods and spirits are connected to the land, are experienced through the land around us. Even as they appear to us now, far from the places they were worshiped for millenia, our experiences of them are shaped by the same land which shapes much of the rest of our understanding of this world. Severance from the land of our ancestors, the sacred wells, mounds, trees, shrines, and temples, and particularly of the places where our ancestors celebrated and mourned their ancestors, has left a traumatic wound within us that we constantly struggle to repair. It is for this reason we are “reconstructing” or “reviving” ancient beliefs, rather than merely continuing them on.
And Capitalism, more than any other social or political arrangement, has been the cause of much of this severance through displacement.
This same ancestral wound, this severance from ancestral traditions, has also been experienced by non-European peoples, women and men chained on top of each other in the hulls of ships crossing the Atlantic, women and men watching their forests burned and their bison slaughtered by the coming of the colonists bearing both Monotheism and Capitalism. And it hasn’t ended–the Asian factory workers suddenly finding themselves sewing textiles for low wages is experiencing the same thing the English peasant endured 300 years ago. The South American farmers suddenly unable to farm the land they live on because it’s been Enclosed by larger farmers, the African peoples losing access to forests and wells their families have used for centuries because it’s been bought by multi-national companies, the First Nations’ folks pushed onto smaller and smaller parcels of land, and the Arab family whose olive grove is bulldozed to make room for property developers–nothing has changed, and we are all subject to this terror.