The Logic of Disenchantment

Cyril Mann–”Dark Satanic Mills”

Think, if you will, upon the earth below your feet. Consider the worlds of life in the soil, the dance and struggles of unseen lives breaking down and building up the very stuff upon which our lives are built. Think on that soil, sustaining the pillars of our homes, bequeathing nourishment to the fecundity of trees and plants whose roots reach deeply into its dark loam–delving ever farther down while reaching up towards the light of sun, star and moon. Think of the rain dripping from leaf and blade to soak through that soil, welling together in springs and streams, gathering into lakes and rivers to carry the dreams of land into the dreams of the sea.

Think of the spirits of those trees, the dryads, the fae. Think of the landwights, the genius loci, the goddesses of rivers and springs. The animals who burrow within the ground, who make homes from the scattered droppings of the trees, the birds who wing amidst branch and vine. Think on the spirits who guide them, the totems who reveal to us their whispers of meaning.

Much of the earth from which our life derives, in which the Other inhabits and reveals itself to us? It’s property.

Capitalism and Disenchantment

I’ve been discussing the disenchantment of the world in these posts but have thus far only touched upon something integral to the concept, There’s a the looming spectre haunting the process of disenchantment. Very few writers confront it, and I’ll be honest—I’m a bit reluctant myself. This won’t make me popular.

Something happened in the 1700’s, some great disconnection between us humans and the earth around us. Somehow, our relationship to place, to nature, and to each other shifted. The writer who first popularized the idea of disenchantment, Max Weber, borrowed it to describe the shift in the way we began approaching the world.  From his lecture entitled “Science as Vocation”:

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.

He echoes another man also responsible for the birth of sociology, Karl Marx. From The Communist Manifesto, written with Friedrich Engels: [emphasis mine]

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. 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.

Both men are referring to a specific process, tracking a a shift in the way humanity related to each other and, to a lesser extent, to the earth. This shift was the birth of Capitalism.

A Very Brief History of a Horrible Idea

Several stories are told about the birth of Capitalism, how a new system of relations was worlded into our lives. Some suggest it was a natural outgrowth of earlier forms, inevitable as humanity “progressed.” This version of the story (the “progress narrative”)  defines much of the way we see ourselves. This worlding asserts that humans are constantly getting better, more complicated, advancing from a primitive state to something more enlightened. And speaking of enlightened, this theory comes from the Enlightenment, appearing suddenly in a diverse set of philosophies at the same time Capitalism is birthed. It’s a new idea, a new sort of history which was almost unheard of in the histories of the world before the 1600’s.

There’s a better explanation than this, and it’s quite simple. Capitalism was born during a very specific time and in a very specific land,  a response to a sudden change in humanity’s relationship to place. There’d never been a “market” in land rents before, but suddenly, in the countryside of England, after the repeal of specific laws and the passing of new ones (including the Enclosure Acts), land became a commodity, a product to be bought and sold and owned and traded.

That is, our relationship to the places we lived, the places we grew food and hunted animals and gathered herbs and raised animals suddenly changed. Worse than being merely something to trade, it became something to improve. Suddenly divorced (some would say “liberated”) from older conceptions of nature, societies changed. People who’d rented land at prices previously fixed by tradition, law, and religious notions of fairness suddenly couldn’t afford to do so without constantly producing more from the land they worked. Those who figured out how to “improve” their “production” could keep renting land, possibly renting more and even purchasing their own once the ancient practice of the commons (land open to anyone to use) ended.

The rest?  No longer having access to land (“the means of production,” in Marxist terminology), they made the only logical choice for their situations.  They sold their time and work (their “labor”) to owners of land or mills in order to survive, away from a relationship to the land where spirits dwelt.

“Among These Dark Satanic Mills”

At the same time that Capitalism was birthed from the newly parceled lands of England, there sprung something else. The birth of modern Druidry can be traced to the same period, as well as the birth of archeology and folklore studies. As this new form of worlding spread from England to its colonies and the mainland, formal attempts to re-invigorate ancient wisdom and practices sprung up all over Europe.

Most of us know this story, but I wonder how seriously we allow ourselves to take it? A new ordering of the world springs up and spreads like a plague, and suddenly new orders and traditions rise up to confront it. It’s kinda epic.

And here we are, Pagans, some 300 years after the birth of Capitalism and the spread of its destructive, Materialistic logic.  It’s still around, and getting worse, and the earth is dying around us. We, united in our love and reverence of nature, painfully aware that something is wrong with the way we world the earth, seeing its disenchantment and craving to see the Other in our worldings–it’s time we confront Capitalism.

About Rhyd Wildermuth

An intractable tea-swilling leftist-punk 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. He also writes at paganarch.com.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    Love it. The Diggers were also a reaction to the developments you’re talking about.

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      As well as many, many other groups. I’ve been trying desperately to track down more references for the Molly Maguires, a radical group who would issue evictions to wealthy land-owners and factories in the name of the local land spirits before sabotaging them!

      • Christopher Scott Thompson

        I’m only familiar with the Molly Maguires in the Pennsylvania coal wars, but this sounds very different.

        • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

          Ah! So, it appears (according to the sources I heard which I still cannot find) that those Molly Maguires sprung out from the Irish ones…. Which is damn exciting.

          • Christopher Scott Thompson

            Yes, I believe that’s the case.

  • Traci

    I heartily agree with the premise, and the need to radically confront capitalism. I would argue that this sentiment (see repost below) is also reflective of the same logic of disenchantment: taking away inherent consciousness and mystery, separating the Other Living Persons within the cosmos into mere objects to be observed and ‘used’. Do tree-persons need spirits any more than you do? Do water-persons need goddesses inhabiting them any more than I do? Do bird-persons need to be guided by some unseen force, any more than another human-person does?

    “Think of the spirits of those trees, the dryads, the fae. Think of the landwights, the genius loci, the goddesses of rivers and springs. The animals who burrow within the ground, who make homes from the scattered droppings of the trees, the birds who wing amidst branch and vine. Think on the spirits who guide them, the totems who reveal to us their whispers of meaning.”

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      I can see your qualms regarding the matter. There’s a specific theme that I’ve found vital to all of this, elucidated most in my previous post (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/asenseofplace/2013/12/the-magician-the-world/), that of human agency.
      I’m an polytheist and an animist, but not a pantheist, so my beliefs will seem to conflict with others notions of the diversity of spirits. What is most important to me is addressing the affective nature of humans in their worldings, both how human-centered theologies sustain the problem you address while nature-centered theologies often ignore human agency except when it’s destructive. Humans as “just another animal” is Materialism, while Humans as apart from nature is “The Enlightenment.”

      The position I hold is best summed up in G.K. Chesterton’s criticism of un-godded (“disenchanted”) Naturalism:

      “Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook;
      but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists,
      and talked about the gods of brook and bush. That is what the moderns
      mean when they say that the ancients did not “appreciate Nature,”
      because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not
      tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance
      on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for
      the dryads.”

      • Thisica

        But I see Nature without any supernaturalism. Sounds odd, but it feels like I’m getting a narrowed vision of how people relate to the world. For that, I disagree with Chesterton. I will not forget the complexity of our history, nor will I just blindly not accept any of it simply because it’s ugly. This includes, amongst any time period, the Enlightenment. It’s easy to disparage something that we don’t like–it’s much harder to understand the legacies that we have inherited from such a time. This requires a sober assessment of history, not a truncated story of what happened.

        The Enlightenment has Christian traces all over it, but can we salvage the good aspects of it without such traces…or is it the case that we have to reject the entirety of the values, practices,
        institutions, etc. of the Enlightenment that we have inherited? We have to be careful here, lest we end up in a situation of history-denial.

        To see ourselves as one animal among others is humbling, compared to the old Christian mindset as ourselves being the ‘apex of Creation’. Humans apart from Nature is quite an old one, stemming from ever since we wielded technology, which is a long time ago. We can still relate to the world, even today, so let’s not forget that. Otherwise, we succumb to the problems of nostalgia, which can impede us from having an empathetic stance towards our past.

        We are children of agriculture, which has arguably done quite a lot of destruction of ecologies the world over. This is quite important, in my opinion. We must not forget that too–without agriculture, we wouldn’t be able to sustain a large human population (and the trouble that goes along with it).

        • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

          There are many who agree with you regarding the human/nature divide coming from technology. I personally hate technology (really–I just started using cell-phones 3 years ago, and I refuse to use a “smart one.”). And technology always has the possibility of mediating our experiences away from nature.

          That being said, it isn’t technology which is the problem, but rather our new relationship to it -and- to each other and to nature which stems from Capitalism and its Enlightenment justifications.

          You may really like Chakrabarty, as in his essay “The Climate of History,” he addresses the conflict between keeping the “freedom” of the enlightenment project while addressing Capitalism. His statement:

          “In no discussion of freedom in the period since the Enlightenment was there ever any awareness of the geological agency that human beings were acquiring at the same time as and through processes closely linked to their acquisition of freedom.”

          And of course while Agriculture causes destruction, Agriculture under the Capitalist (and Communist) imperative of Improvement is a massacre. One need not see the Dryads in the trees (I do) to understand something really, really bad happened when Capitalism came.

          • Thisica

            So, may I ask…what do you think about the value of freedom? Is it currently being overvalued worldwide?

            And I do wonder about why our society has an obsession with freedom as a (human) value…Where did it come from? Surely this overvaluation arose before the rise of capitalism…And what is it that we want to be free from?

            What kind of freedom do we desire…and what kinds of freedom should we not pursue?

            Some extra important questions to chew over. It’s important, since the value of freedom is hardly ever questioned in Western societies.


            And about technology: the morality of using technology is quite ambivalent. But I don’t see how hating technology can help here, save for a bad form of Romantising, which we have to avoid. Should we hate modern science as well, given that science is possible by technology? It’s an unfortunate rhetorical flourish, but such attitudes isn’t that constructive. We need to be present in the world today, not run away from it. But to be present, we need an awareness of our history, not a distorted view of our past, as I’ve mentioned before.

          • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

            Our ideas of freedom are so messed up, not because of our views on freedom, but because of our views on the outer world. The example I like to use is the experience of a very poor person facing the choice of keeping her child or not. This choice is radically different from that of a very wealthy person, and yet we lump those two circumstances together as if they are equal.

            That is, the poor have fewer choices, and those choices are weighted by survival, so that when we assert that vulnerable people have the same basic “right” of free will as everyone else in society, we are pretty much slapping them in the face.

            Most of our ideals of freedom are Enlightenment-era. It’s a new conceptualization of the world. Not that I think we shouldn’t be free, but I think we should have a very good idea of what we mean by “free” and at what human and environmental cost that comes at. For instance, some libertarians in the United States are fond of calling automobiles “chariots of freedom” in response to “evil-socialist” attempts to build public transportation systems. The freedom to drive a car creates damage to the earth. So sometimes freedom means “independence” from the earth or, more specifically, from the responsibility of our actions within it.

            sigh.

          • Thisica

            I like the idea of freedom tied to responsibility. This is
            what is missing in a lot of discourse about the notion of freedom. This is something which the individuals of the Enlightenment didn’t worry much about, which I find to be a loss. If only if they could understand this continual
            commitment towards a sense of responsibility to this freedom.

            I, as a naturalist, find the concept of free will to be a
            Christian theological one, which is implicitly drawn upon when we talk about freedom. I don’t believe in the concept of free will, as it unties us from the actual physical world in which we live. We are finite creatures and so as a consequence cannot do the impossible—that’s hubris. We can’t also claim that we know everything—that’s arrogance. These twin traps are part of what our problems are at the moment.

          • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

            That’s very much it. It is hubris to think we can escape the limits of the physical world at precisely the same time as we use the physical world to enact our freedoms.

            It can also be seen from a polytheist perspective without difficulty, particularly through the goddesses of sovereignty such as The Morrigan and (I believe) Arianrhod.. Goddesses who grant sovereignty withdraw it just as quickly when the “ruler” (in this case everyone enacting choice through the land) no longer cares for her charge. At some point we see our bloodied armor (the product of artifice, technology) washed in the river and know we’ve gone too far.

            In either viewpoint (the Naturalist or the Polytheist), the end result is the same; however, Capitalism has been incredibly good at displacing destruction of the environment so that we don’t immediately see the washer at the ford. The environmentalist and the mystic are both Cassandra, wailing our fates with no-one listening.

  • Asa

    You say this post won’t make you popular, but I think the tide is turning. More and more people are starting to honestly talk about what an ugly, violent system capitalism is and has always been.

    The more we can dispel the silence that capitalists enforce, the less power they’ll have.

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      I hope you’re right. : )
      There’s a phrase the philosopher Slavoj Zizek uses which reminds me of your statement, that, in essence, we currently do not have all the words to describe our un-freedom within Capitalism, as it claims to be the source of freedom. So…working on helping us find words. :)

  • Gus diZerega

    Lots of good stuff here. One of the greatest challenges to us today is putting values other than money and domination (of people and nature) in the ultimate driver’s seat of a modern economy.

    You might take a look at the Mondragon cooperatives of Spain as an example of how this can be done. Arising out of the work of a parish priest over 50 years ago (and the Catholic social philosophy Pope Francis is getting called a marxist for by the right wing) it contributed mightily to turning Spain’s poorest province into its richest. Happily at this level there is no contradiction I can see between their outlook and most NeoPagan ones.

    Today Mondragon has 80K worker-owners, no unemployment in a country with 25%, growing ecolopgical awareness, top CEOs get a maximum of 6X the lowest wage in a worker-managed business, and lots and lots more, all good. When I visited the region there were no gated communities, no mansions, no slums, and no beggars. They have been duplicated on a small but impressive scale by the Alvarado street bakery in Petaluma (30 years old, their CEO gets 3X plus more).

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      This fascinates me. Did it spring them from the Liberation Theologians or from the Anarchists in Spain? Or, most excitingly, both?

      I’ve never seen any real conflict between Paganism and Leftisms, including Marxism. In fact, I think more of my Pagan theory comes from Marxists and Critical Theorists than from Pagan writers. Also, I was sort of floored when I met my first pro-Capitalist Pagan–most of the Pagans I’d met were marching in anti-capitalist and anti-war protests. I was also equally surprised when I met my first hardcore atheist anarchist–most tend to have at least some affection for Pagans. : )

      • Gus diZerega

        So far as I know, neither. The spark to the thing was Fr. Jose Arizmendi, a Catholic priest who barely escaped execution under Franco for being too left. He was sent to the very poor Basque region to be a parish priest (which he remained life long). He himself was Basque. At a broad level what he did was a straightforward application of Catholic social philosophy that sought a middle way between capitalism and Marxism.

        There is nothing uniquely Catholic about it. As modern movements both capitalism and Marxism had removed human beings from a larger ethical context. (I go into this in my new book Faultlines.) The church, like nearly all of us, argued we existed in this larger value context. How then find institutions open to this context but able to deal with modern issues?

        Arizmendi discovered how ultimately to build almost an entire society on these insights. Mondragon today has the 7th largest and most viable bank in Spain, a university partnered with one in Finland, schools, medical care, retirement, agriculture, retail, and production, all organized along these lines. On a small scale it works remarkably well in the Alvarado Streeti Bakery in Petaluma, CA. This bakery is very large and sells all over much of N. CA. The major scholar to have done work on Mondragon is David Ellerman and many of his papers on the issue are downloadable on his web site. The Praxis Peace Institute in Sonoma, CA organizes annual study trips to Mondragon. I went a year ago. I couldn’t afford to go but I couldn’t afford intellectually not to go. It was worth it.

  • Arakiba

    Starhawk talked about this years ago.

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      It’s true. In fact, hers was one of the biggest influences on me realising that not only are Paganism and anti-Capitalism not conflicting, but they’re actually rather necessary together. : )


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