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Paganism and Modernity: the crisis of humanity, the earth, and capitalism

         This is part III of what will be a three or four part series on the social implications of Pagan religion. 

         Some Pagans probably found my previous essay on alternative forms of economic organization,    such as the Mondragon workers cooperatives, far removed from a strictly Pagan site’s expected interests.  At first glance it does seem far removed.  Here is why I think it is not and in fact goes directly to who we are.

Among the world’s Pagan traditions NeoPaganism is particularly open to coexisting happily with the modern world.  Our roots are in this world and most of us do not look backwards towards earlier Pagan times as being in most respects preferable to modernity.  But there is one important point where we clash fundamentally with modernity’s dominant attitudes, be they of the left or the right.  We see, and many of us have powerfully experienced, the world as inspirited.  Not only human beings are expressions of Spirit, so is the world itself. In sharpest contrast, the modern worldview treats the natural world as a storehouse of resources that acquires what value it has by serving us. 

Modern institutions reflect this attitude, rooted as they are in Protestant Christianity, subsequently strengthened by the dominant materialistic interpretations of science. No institution better exemplifies this view than modern economics, in theory, in law, and in practice.

Because the major modern economic institutions incorporate this rejection of natural value, and because there is no genuine separation between human beings and the rest of the world, these institutions are gradually turning men and women into nothing more than resources serving greater power than they, as has already been done to the rest of the world.  This attitude was as true of state socialism as  of capitalism, for both deny intrinsic value to the world. State socialism has collapsed, but capitalism is a tougher nut.  As my first post showed  people are increasingly rewarded only to the degree they serve capitalism. The world of human values does not matter.  The servant has become the master.

Late February witnessed a fascinating example of this logic at work, although in this case capitalism lost. That is probably the only reason it got headlines.  Apple Computer was created by Steve Jobs and others who gave it a distinct corporate culture that incorporated many “60s values.”   Jobs is gone, but it takes time for a corporate culture to be incorporated into the borg of the capitalist system. In this case the system lost, its effort at incorporation were premature. So-called ‘free market’ advocates sought to force Apple to put maximizing its shares’ monetary value above the company’s commitment to fighting global warming.  The logic of capitalist economics demands share value trump every other value. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, told the insurgents Apple had no use for people such as they.  They should sell their shares and leave.  Over 97% of Apple shareholders supported him. Yet the trounced insurgents replied “millions of Apple shareholders now know that the company is involved with organizations that don't appear to have the best interest of Apple's investors in mind. . ."

Actually the vast majority of shareholders did vote their values, and they were not the values of capitalism. The so-called ‘free market’ advocates put the values of capital ahead of human values such as seeking to preserve the earth’s environment for future generations. They were advocates of an inhuman system best served by the most sociopathic of human beings.

Because we Pagans include the world within the network of our ethical relations the conflict with Pagan spirituality runs even deeper than capitalism’s conflict with more purely human-centered religious traditions. All genuine spiritual traditions value human beings, but ours also honors the earth.

This is our chief, perhaps our only, real conflict with the modern world, and on this issue we are on the side of humanity as a whole as well.  But last time we Pagans confronted the issue, we were not.

This is not the first time

This issue confronted EuroPagans earlier, mostly in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Germany had industrialized late for a European country, and its people experienced the change from an agricultural largely rural society into an industrial and increasingly urban society as very disruptive.  Further the European Romantic movement had sensitized many Germans to recognizing the intrinsic value in the more-than-human world.  In this environment a new German Paganism arose looking to the Pagan past for inspiration.

My new book Faultlines  explores how many of the themes that later characterized the Sixties and the rise of US NeoPagan religion were prefigured in the decades between the War of 1812 and the Civil War.  America’s alternative spiritual movements were progressive. After it was published I began exploring why these trends had taken a different, increasingly reactionary direction as one moved east in Europe, from Britain to France to Germany to Russia.  Most of these spiritual and religious movements were what we today would call New Age in character, but Pagan elements were present as well, especially in England and Germany. Germany’s Pagan focus was much stronger than the English equivalent of the time.  The German example is fascinating to me because its political impact leaned heavily to the right. The Thule Society, which had explicitly Pagan characteristics, ultimately played an important role in the rise of Nazism

I wondered why the difference between us and Germany of the time and began reading some of the key people active back then.

I found as I read the writings of Germans with Pagan beliefs, like Ludwig Klages  that I usually agreed with their criticisms of secular materialistic capitalism while being appalled at the practical conclusions they drew from their critique.  Klages clearly saw   the impact of capitalism on the world, writing for example that: “the winding rivers which once suspended themselves in glittering labryinthine curves, must now become perfectly straight canals; the swift streams and waterfalls  -  and this is true even for Niagra – must now feed electric power plants; ever – expanding forests of smokestacks reach all the way to the oceans’ shores; and the water-pollution caused by industry transforms nature’s pristine waters into raw sewage.” 

But his recommendations leaned strongly to the right, and it is on the most authoritarian and racist edges of the right that his writings are most easily found today. 

             Why the difference from us?

             One theme I continually encountered was their lumping modernity, democracy, and capitalism as a single spiritually hostile force (often most completely represented in their eyes by Jews).  In response they urged returning to simpler societies characterized by extreme hierarchies of power and authority, where all knew their proper place. They believed this society had existed during the Middle Ages and earlier.  Many blamed Christianity for their current situation and urged a return to more ‘Germanic’ traditions

They emphasized those aspects of past Pagan societies that were most at odds with modernity, such as traditional roles of subordination for most people, and the supremacy of masculine warrior values over feminine ones. Pagan imagery was characterized by a one-sided focus on the sun as a sacred source with masculine characteristics while ignoring or subordinating the moon and its feminine symbolism. The swastika was a venerable solar sign in much of Pagan Europe, and they revived and used it for decades with no connection at all to politics before its obscene appropriation by the Nazis. (In my opinion the prevalence of moon signs in modern NeoPaganism and their virtual absence in late 19th and early 20th century German Paganism is very significant, as we shall see.)

There is a tragic irony here.

The capitalist business models and practices these German Pagans and near-Pagans opposed transferred many of the hierarchical customs, laws, and principles of subordination from earlier times into modern industry.  Economic necessity often took the place of earlier laws establishing classes of people, but the practical impact was largely the same.

Workers had to be paid of course, and they ‘voluntarily’ took jobs to avoid starvation, but once hired they were controlled by the “boss,” a well-deserved title at odds with any rhetoric about contracts among equals.  Working people spent most of their lives as powerless subordinates.

Early liberals like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson had considered independent small farmers to be the ideal citizens for free societies.  The rapid rise of enormous industries undermined this ideal.  Jefferson and Adam Smith, who both lived in the first decades of the rise of capitalism, shared a concern with the impact of early industry on its employees. Later ones such as John Stuart Mill and Alexander Tocqueville, were very alarmed about the transformation they saw happening around them. 

Mass deaths like we now read about in Asia today, were all too frequent  in the US at the time. America’s labor history was among the most violent in the world because of the clash between our values of freedom and the demands of capitalist industry.  Pollution from mines rendered miles of countryside sterile wastelands as trees and plants died from the fumes of early industry.  Small wonder people were appalled by the excesses of giant industries and looked for alternatives. 

But, and here is the essential point, the practices destroying so many lives were rooted in the old values of hierarchical societies, not the values of democratic modernity. The world of the time, as it is today, was a complex mixture of values, beliefs, and practices, some modern and some reflecting older times of near universal subordination.  Yet these varied characteristics of society were often lumped together as “modernity.”

German Pagans looked backwards for a solution when they should have looked forwards, to expanding the values of individual freedom and equality instead of blaming them for practices that consistently undermined that same  freedom and equality.

Because most early modern Pagans did not, they supported anti-democratic völkisch  movements seeking better connections with nature and lives no longer controlled by capitalism, but they sought these goods by increasing still further the role of hierarchy and power over most people’s lives.

As we know, the ultimate political consequences were horrible.

Alternative vistas

During this time the Catholic Church was seeking a “middle way” between socialism and liberal capitalism.  While an enemy of religious liberty, and most certainly of Pagan religion, the Church was the strongest force in the West seeking to keep ethics and humane relations dominant ideals in the economy.  In their efforts Catholic thinkers created what is known as “Catholic Social Thought.”   It was this tradition that inspired Fr. Arizmendi when he initiated the changes at Mondragon that transformed the life of the region and eventually opened exciting possibilities for the rest of us.

I am hardly suggesting we incorporate Catholic social thought into Paganism, far from it. However, to a point our interests are the same as theirs and we can learn from them.  They grappled with some of the same problems we face today, and led to some very successful alternatives to capitalism and socialism alike. 

The Church still officially adheres to these principles, with greater or lesser focus.  In 1981 Pope John Paul described this perspective:   “A way towards that goal [of a humane economy]  could be found by associating labor with the ownership of capital, as far as possible, and by producing a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social, and cultural purposes. . .”

This, it seems to me, is a perfect expression of Mondragon’s achievements. 

It also describes an institutional setting where men and women can consider the values of the natural world on their own terms rather than seeking to subordinate them into dollars and cents terms.

Capitalism today is the culmination of the rise of large corporations to encompass much of economic production while systematically eliminating all alternative human values to their profit.  They have now become strong enough to begin turning back hard won protections for labor, and even for citizens in general.  They also are doing untold damage to the earth.  This is happening under the lie that we are increasing ‘freedom’ from regulation when we in fact are letting them create a new serfdom. We see the early stages of this serfdom arising around us with corporations increasingly freed from serious consequences for breaking the law while ever greater wealth accumulates in the hands of those who serve capitalism best  Even the very pro-business British magazine The Economist is worried about these trends, where the incomes of all but the top 5% are stagnating or falling If they have their way there is worse to come

The challenge for men and women of good will, a challenge I believe affects Pagans particularly deeply, is to find humane alternatives to capitalist amorality by perfecting the insights that gave us the best of the modern world.  Looking backwards has proven a mistake.  The Mondragon workers cooperatives and smaller but very successful American businesses organized in the same way, like the Alvarado Street Bakery, show us a way forward.

Only when men and women can consider the full richness of our relations with one another and with our world will they be able to act with the wisdom and insight we so desperately need today.

 (small edits on 3/29/14)

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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 12 March 2014

    Mr. diZerega,

    Thanks for another great post!

    Two things: You've reminded me of why I cancelled my subscription to The Economist, and why I admired Catholic social doctrine even when I knew deep down that I was Pagan.

    The Economist magazine is the London financial district ("The City") version of Soviet-era Pravda. If something is good for the banks and the bottom line of global corporations, it's assumed to be good for the entire human race.

    That said, it's an excellent news source; you'll read important stories that American news outlets barely cover. You just have to filter out the bankster b.s., and all the polite euphemisms for ruthless exploitation of people like us ("Labour flexibility" = race to the bottom!) After a while, I just got tired of paying good money to be propagandized by the Rothschild banking dynasty.

    I considered becoming Catholic, for a short time in the early 90s, whilst still in denial about my core Pagan beliefs. I bought the Church's catechism at a local bookstore, read it, and was deeply impressed by Catholicism's concern for the poor and its critique of atheistic materialism.

  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 12 March 2014

    I'm also a big fan of silent film generally, and Fritz Lang's German stuff in particular.

    I'll remember your post the next time I watch "Siegfried", and "Kriemhild's Revenge".

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