On Place, Pagan Values, and Politicizing Paganism

Sunset through the young trees in "my" woods.  Photo: ©2015 James Lindenschmidt. CC by-sa
Sunset through the young trees in “my” woods.
Photo: ©2015 James Lindenschmidt. CC by-sa

In the wake of the successful Beltane launch of Gods & Radicals, there has been some lively discussion about “Pagan Values” and the “politicization” of Paganism. In “Pagans Are A Conquered People,” I argued that Pagans have largely become conquered within the past 500 years, a time best described as a turn from Pagan values. In making this argument, I was rightfully criticized for not articulating “Pagan Values” more fully, fearing that I was collapsing a global diversity of traditions & cultures into one homogeneous (and presumably whitewashed) thing, explaining the diversity of various Paganisms by explaining them away.

Pagan Values & The Power of Abstraction

Luckily, Kadmus over at Gods & Radicals has developed pagan values more fully. He argues that “capitalism levels all values while paganism is committed to a pluralism of irreducibly different values.” Since the advent of capitalism, as well as its related mechanistic thought patterns and ideologies including science, land enclosure, allopathic medicine, colonialism, the myriad diversity of Pagan values took a collective back seat to the new ideologies. As Kadmus argues so well, values are fiery, shiny callings to action, invitations that present themselves to consciousness, that evoke the promise of deeper meaning and importance. Values, Kadmus concludes, “are reality’s opening of a conversation with us — a conversation to be enacted through what we do.” The more consistent values become in a culture — which necessarily means more abstract values not tied to specific facticities in spacetime — the better the capitalist system will operate. Eventually, it will be able to accumulate surplus value “at the most abstract level of the system once making money from production no longer sufficed” (Midnight Notes Collective, Promissory Notes), moving the system completely into the realm of imagination with no correspondence with physical reality whatsoever.

Capitalism’s ability to concretize abstractions in our minds is pure sorcery at the highest levels, such that billions of people behave as if these purely abstract and arbitrary rules of capitalist engagement are quite real and concrete, beyond question at the most fundamental level. They take the place of the gods and spirits, turning our experience of the world upside-down, seeing every aspect of the ecosystem in terms of its own rules rather than in terms of the actual physical things in the world and the labor of its people.

This tendency to reverse perspectives manifests in several ways, including the Marxist processes of exchange Kadmus lays out. In more primitive, and perhaps more grounded, economic systems, money is a way to manage trade, in terms of getting from the starting point (possession of a commodity one wishes to trade) and the end (increasing the diversity of commodities one possesses). Under capitalism, this process is reversed, such that money is both the starting point (initial investment) and the end goal (profit), with the actual commodities — and by extension the natural resources and labor involved in their production — less important to the extent that actual physical commodities aren’t even necessary to succeed in the capitalist game of “making money.” Under capitalism, these reversals always move from concrete, physical realities and facticities into the realm of abstraction.

Place & Politicizing Paganism

Another manifestation of this reversal comes in a place that I didn’t expect: that some of us, by making these observations and devoting ourselves to beautiful resistance, are somehow “politicizing” Paganism. My response to this charge comes back to the very title of this blog: any Pagan with a Sense Of Place, encountering the land beneath their feet, will undoubtedly be able to discern how their Paganism is politicized, and has been for the better part of 500 years. I am lucky, I live in the Maine woods where I can walk right outside my door and be surrounded by nature without leaving “my” 2 acres of forest. These woods where I live have a spirit to them, a kind of consciousness, and my own spirit is bettered when I deepen my relationship with these woods. This is my Paganism. But I am also acutely aware that no tree on “my” property is more than a century old — pretty much the entire state of Maine has been clearcut several times in the past 300 years. When I speak to the trees of capitalism they get quiet, and their sadness is discernible to me. This, too, is my Paganism.

Then there is the history of the Pagan people, whether actual pagans & witches over the centuries or non-Pagan people wrongly accused of being witches. Isn’t it at least 500 years too late to speak of politicizing Paganism? Whether it was a few tens of thousands or millions of women burned at the stake, have Pagans not suffered the politicization of Paganism for half a millenia? After all this history, must we not take it as given that Paganism has been politicized? And if we ignore this facticity, does it not benefit the oppressive power structures? Why else would one do this work to create a better world? Not because it is enjoyable or pleasurable, but because it is necessary, out of love for the beautiful world we can co-create in its place.

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