Pagan Anarchism

on December 21, 2013

In between my forays into the remoter reaches of prehistory, I like to keep an eye on current events for signs of significant transitions. It seems that one such transition is upon us now, as indicated by the fact that “economic populism” — or “economic justice” or “social justice” — has become the hot new buzzword of the moment.

Four years ago, the issue of inequality was not even on the table. Two years ago, it was being pushed only by those noisy folk down at Occupy Wall Street. But now it is something that even the elites and makers of opinion are having to recognize.

That’s not just a switch in the zeitgeist. It’s a sign that we’re at a crucial turning point in the cycle of visions where the horizontalism vision starts to attract mainstream attention.

If the pattern that I worked out last spring holds true, we’re about to see horizontalism — like holism in the late 60s and early 70s — become the focus of a tug of war between established interests looking for practical solutions and the wild romantics and radicals who have been nurturing the vision for the last several decades.

The ultimate outcome of that struggle will be a split between a “safe” version of the vision on one hand and a more dangerous and mystical version on the other. However, that split will remain latent for the next dozen years or so. In the meantime, I see nothing wrong with getting as many tangible benefits as we can out of this window of opportunity when the elite are running scared and willing to make concessions.

I would be perfectly happy, for example, if “economic populism” equivalents of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the Endangered Species Act (1973) were passed in an effort to head off bloody revolution. But responses of that order are still a few years down the pike. What’s happening right now, and what’s of primary interest to me, is an imminent rearrangement affecting all the current visions.

For the past five years, we’ve been witnessing a slow-motion collapse of the previously dominant partnership of democracy and chaos. The democracy vision is irretrievably broken, unable to address the social and economic problems that afflict us. The chaos vision is in the saddle — but this is not the largely benign hippie chaos of fifty years ago. The vision has been distorted by success and now empowers the Tea Partiers and billionaires who have brought democracy to a state of gridlock and would be glad to crash the world economy in the name of profit.

When a crisis drags on indefinitely and all the familiar solutions fail to resolve it, even the leaders of of society eventually give up on the dominant partnership and turn to the younger visions. That is what is happening now. The panic over global warming expressed by adherents of the holism vision is becoming conventional wisdom. The worldwide currents of discontent inspired by the horizontalism vision are having an impact. And the changes affecting those two visions indicate that the very newest of the emerging visions, creative imagination, is also poised to become a great deal more visible than it has been in the past.

In a post on the 1960s that I did a few years ago, I specifically identified 1966 as a pivotal moment of change. I pointed to the fact that holism was starting to go mainstream, as shown by “conquest of nature” postage stamps giving way to ones with a “keep America beautiful” message. And I noted that 1966 was also the year when horizontalism became a center of idealistic aspiration, as reflected in the deliberate multi-ethnicity of Star Trek.

I think we’re at an equivalent turning point right now — and the dynamic behind it is fairly obvious. Holism is becoming more practical and less romantic. Horizontalism is also under pressure to be reconfigured as a source of practical solutions. Both these shifts result in a net loss of transcendence, which can only be balanced by the youngest and most transcendent of the emerging visions coming to the fore.

For the last few years, protest movements and alternative cultures have been guided by an alliance between holism and horizontalism, and this continues to be reflected in anti-fracking protests and calls for environmental justice. But once the larger society starts taking those demands seriously, I foresee a shift of focus to the more mystical and revolutionary association between horizontalism and creative imagination.

Something similar happened in the late 60s when the alliance of chaos and holism that had been the basis of the psychedelic counterculture gave way to the pairing of holism and horizontalism that underlay the Whole Earth Catalog. It’s going to happen again over the next year or two — except that now we’re one step further along in the sequence of visions.

The basis for the shift is already well established, if not yet generally visible. A couple of days ago, I ran across a passage in David Graeber’s Direct Action (2009) which underlines how closely horizontalism and creative imagination are intertwined:

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European anarchism always tended … to take on a radically atheist tone, identifying the very notion of God with the principle of hierarchy and unquestioning authority. … In contemporary anarchism this hostility has largely faded away: in part … because of the development of specifically anarchistic forms of spirituality such as feminist paganism. At the same time, specifically anarchist forms of spirituality are — in addition to being inherently pluralistic and open-ended (hence the polytheism) — almost always at least a trifle self-effacing and capable of distance from themselves. Many pagans have a striking ability to see their views as profoundly true, and simultaneously, as a kind of whimsical comedy. Often they seem to be engaging at the same time in a ritual and the parody of a ritual; the point where laughter and self-mockery are likeliest to come into the picture is precisely the point where one approaches the most numinous, unknowable, or profound. The same whimsical, playful quality is reflected in a good deal of pagan feminist literature, as in other branches of anarchist theory, and appears to reflect a sensibility that, at its best, sees “theory” as, if anything, a form of creative writing, both profoundly true because it highlights certain otherwise invisible aspects of reality, but at the same time profoundly foolish, in that it does so by being willingly blind to other aspects. Also, one in which imagination, the ability to create new theories, visions, or anything else, is itself the ultimate, unknowable, sacred thing.

Anyone who’s been following this blog is likely to recognize that Graeber’s description of imagination as “the ultimate, unknowable, sacred thing” is identical to what I’ve been calling “creative imagination.” However, it’s not just his conclusions that parallel my own — it’s also the sources from which he draws those conclusions.

When I started exploring the origins of the creative imagination vision, I relied heavily on Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, a pioneering survey of wicca and neo-paganism originally published in 1979. The central themes of that book are essentially the same as those expressed in the above passage from Graeber — the development of “feminist paganism” and the “inherently pluralistic and open-ended” nature of anarchist spirituality. Here, for example, is a quote from a practitioner of ceremonial magic cited by Adler:

A major reason why the Craft is reviving now is that it depends on an “open” metaphysics, the only kind that can work in this century. The explanation I have evolved of such an “open” system is this: Reality is infinite. Therefore everything you experience is, in some sense, real. But since your experiences can only be a small part of this infinity, they are merely a map of it, merely a metaphor; there is always an infinity of possible experiences still unexplored. What you know, therefore, may be true as far as it goes, but it cannot be Whole Truth, for there is always infinitely further to go. In brief: “It is all real; it is all metaphor; there is always more.”

Graeber himself is an anarchist, an anthropologist, and one of the leading planners of Occupy Wall Street. It’s not clear whether he shares the beliefs he describes, but he clearly respects them. For example, he makes several references in Direct Action to Starhawk, a well-known wiccan and anarchist whom he describes as “a sometime science fiction writer … sometime author of works on feminist paganism, who had been involved in direct action campaigns since the late 1970s. … A practicing witch, she had a reputation as a kind of den mother for the pagan cluster.”

It should come as no surprise that Starhawk was involved in organizing spokescouncils for Occupy Wall Street — or that the NPR reporter who quoted her in a March 2012 article on what OWS had been up to since the disbanding of its Zuccotti Park encampment was Margot Adler.

The interconnections here are unusually dense, and they suggest several conclusions. One is that the association between horizontalism and creative imagination has developed largely within a few small, closely related groups of individuals — which appears typical of visions in their early phases.

Another is that this development has been under way for a considerable period of time. Among other things, the non-hierarchical methods of organization employed by OWS and its offshoots were originally worked out in small groups of feminists and feminist pagans some forty years ago.

And a third is that, like all evolutionary leaps, these ideas will be taken as appearing out of nowhere as the culture at large becomes receptive to them.

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