A good friend just sent me a link to a very interesting read. It sums up quite a few things on my own mind and puts into perspective what I perceive to be crucial issues for the reactionary Left in general and activists in particular. A kind of anarchist magic – and that is probably the only viable solution for substantial change in the world we live in.
It is published in Red Room with the title “GETTING BEYOND THE NARRATIVES: AN OPEN LETTER TO THE ACTIVIST COMMUNITY” and was originally just a commentary written to two friends, but it is a lot more than that – which is why it is circulating in cyberspace and why I have chosen to reproduce it here: it deserves wide attention!
A very good read. Enjoy!
GETTING BEYOND THE NARRATIVES: AN OPEN LETTER TO THE ACTIVIST COMMUNITY
August 22, 2005
This essay began life as an open letter to two activist friends discussing a book edited by David Solnit, “Globalize Liberation” (SF: City Lights Book, 2004). It ended up in circulation among the activist community in the US, and was published several times on the internet. I have left it in its original form, as I think this adds more than it subtracts. — JMG
James asked me for my thoughts on “Globalize Liberation,” and I hope neither of you will mind a lengthy, even labored, response. The book is extremely thought-provoking in its strengths and weaknesses alike, and it’s given me an opportunity to rethink many of the assumptions I’ve had about social change and the potential shape of the future. Since I come to these issues from a somewhat unusual perspective — the perspective of a practicing mage and initiate of several magical orders — I recognize that the ideas “Globalize Liberation” evoked in me are perhaps a little different from those common in the progressive community. Thus I’ve chosen to explain those ideas here at some length.
James, we’ve talked extensively about magic, but I don’t know how much of that you’ve shared with Patrick. For that reason, not to mention the off chance you might pass this around to others, I should probably take a moment to explain what I mean by magic and why it’s relevant to social change at all. Dion Fortune (Violet Firth Evans), one of the most important magical theorists of the twentieth century, defined magic as “the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will.” While magic as I understand it is more a craft than an art or a science, the basic principle holds. The medium of magic is consciousness — one’s own consciousness, that of other people, and (more controversially, at least within the worldview of modern industrial culture) that of other-than-human entities of various kinds. The tools of magic are will, imagination, and the innate structures of consciousness itself, constellated through formal patterns of symbol and ritual. The goals of magic are defined by the individual magician.
The relevance of all this to social change and society in general was pointed out powerfully by the late Ioan Culianu, one of the few significant modern scholars of magic who was also a competent mage. In his groundbreaking “Eros and Magic in the Renaissance” (1984) Culianu argued that modern advertising is a form of magic, and proposed that modern consumer societies can be seen as “magician states” in which social control is primarily maintained not by violence but by manipulation through magically charged images. It’s a crucial insight; when people treat, say, fizzy brown sugar water as a source of their identity and human value, their resemblance to fairy-tale characters under an enchantment isn’t accidental. They’re quite literally caught up in a spell.
Those who aren’t used to magic may find it easier to think of spells as stories. Quite a lot of magic, in fact, can be understood as storytelling. The mage uses symbol and ritual to tell a story, and makes it so spellbinding that the listeners come to believe that it’s real — and then make it real by their actions. Magical combat is a struggle between storytellers, in which each mage tries to define a common reality in terms of the story that best serves his or her purposes. The struggle between the global corporate system and the activist community, to build on Culianu’s insights, can be seen as a
conflict of magicians telling opposing stories.
One obvious danger in magical combat is that of falling under the spell of the other mage’s story — but there’s also the subtler danger of falling under the spell of one’s own story, losing track of the fact that it’s a story rather than the raw undefined reality of human experience out of which stories are assembled. When that happens, the self-enchanted mage may not be able to let go of the story, even when it’s no longer relevant and another story would be more useful. As the old tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice points out, if you lose control of the magical forces you summon, you’re in trouble. Something of this sort seems to have happened in large parts of the progressive community.
Reading “Globalize Liberation” highlighted for me three stories, or spells, in which many of today’s progressives seem to be caught. Let’s call them the spell of reification, the spell of corporate triumphalism, and the spell of rescue. (This last has another name that’s more revealing, but I’ll save that for a bit; I’m sure you know that mages don’t bandy about true names too freely.) I’d like to talk about those spells first, and then go on to talk about the more hopeful side of the book: some of the ways in which today’s progressive community has begun to master its own magical powers and, with them, the future of the world.
I. The Spell of Reification
To my mind, one of the most striking essays in “Globalize Liberation” is Van Jones’ piece “Behind Enemy Lines: Inside the World Economic Forum” (pp.87-96). It’s especially valuable because it brings core assumptions of the progressive community up against the very different world of industrial society’s ruling elite.
Jones was astonished to find that the vast corporate structures against which he and many other progressives had been campaigning so hard — the WTO, the World Bank, and so on — were treated, by the people who run them, as mere tools to be used or tossed aside at will. The elite see themselves personally as the holders of power, and institutions as their means and modes of power. The activists outside the police barricades, by contrast, see the institutions themselves as the problem. The scene from “The Wizard of Oz” comes forcefully to mind; Dorothy and her friends try to figure out some way to deal with the terrifying apparition of Oz, the Great and Powerful, but never notice the little man behind the curtain.
This is only one form of a pervasive problem in today’s progressive politics: the way that identification so often transforms itself into reification. In magical tradition, names are a source of power, since to name something is to give it a context and meaning of the mage’s choosing. In struggles for social change, it’s therefore crucial to name what one is fighting; that’s identification. But to go beyond this, to forget that every name is an abstraction imposed on a complex reality, and to treat the name as though it’s an independent reality lurching around all by itself causing problems — that’s reification, and it’s fatal.
The economic elite Jones encountered at the World Economic Forum use reification as a form of protective camouflage. The WTO and its like distract protest from the people and interests who shape, operate, and profit from them. The elites could discard any of them in a heartbeat without bringing the world one step closer to progressive goals. But this isn’t the only form of reification that gets in the way of effective social change.
Starhawk’s essay “A Feminist View of Global Justice” (pp. 45-50) shows another kind of reification at work. Starhawk’s a capable mage, and her essay is a good example of name magic. Responding to claims that the world’s problems are caused by corporations pursuing their own good under the banner of neoliberal ideology, she argues that corporations and neoliberalism alike are simply forms of patriarchy. By this act of renaming she subordinates anticorporate language and analyses to the feminist philosophy she’s defended so ably in her many books.
But what is this thing called “patriarchy”? As feminist philosophers have rightly pointed out, there’s nothing in American society or culture that isn’t part of the system of privilege subordinating women to men. It’s useful to glance a few pages ahead to Betita Martinez’ article on racism, which argues that the system of white supremacy (the name she places on racism, in another act of name magic) similarly embraces every institution in American society. If every part of American society is part of the system of patriarchy, and every part of American society is likewise part of the system of white supremacy, are the two systems actually different?
I’d point out that human relations and exchanges in American society (and indeed most others) suffer from systematic inequalities along lines drawn by gender, color, age, ethnicity, social status, sexual orientation, body weight, physical appearance, and many other factors. None of these divisions exist outside the whole system of privilege. It can be good strategy to use labels such as “patriarchy” to focus attention on some particular group suffering under the system, but it’s crucial not to fall into the same mistake as those who protest the WTO, and forget that patriarchy is simply one mode of privilege, a manifestation rather than a cause.
Failure to realize this burdened an earlier generation of activists with bitter, divisive, and utterly futile quarrels between men of color and white women as to whether racism or sexism was the “real problem,” when the real problem is a system of privilege that treats gender and color, among many other things, as grounds for unequal treatment. But reifying privilege as something separate from society as a whole doesn’t advance understanding either. The word “privilege” is merely a way of describing systematic patterns of inequality in the fabric of human relations and exchanges; it doesn’t exist outside that fabric, and it can only be changed by changing the fabric thread by thread, weaving it into new patterns of equality and mutual respect.
Of course systematic oppression of women on account of their gender is a reality, and something that any progressive movement worth the name needs to confront. In that Starhawk’s essay focuses attention on this, it’s performing a valuable service. But it’s crucial to remember that many women also suffer oppression and injustice for reasons unrelated to their gender — reasons such as color, ethnic background, and body weight — and that women can also be privileged by social divisions, and inflict oppression and injustice on others. Using a label such as “patriarchy” for the whole problem obscures these issues and, as I’ll show a little further on, closes off potential avenues for effective action. Beyond this, insisting that one particular mode of privilege is more important than others is itself a claim of privilege, and — as in the case of the quarrels just mentioned — commonly accompanies attempts to claim that one group’s experience of oppression and injustice deserves more attention from the activist community than others.
Reifications are problematic because they can distract progressives from points of access where their actions can make a difference. Consider George Lakey’s fascinating account of the Otpor movement against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in his article “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” (pp. 135-160). One of the tactics Otpor members used to halt police violence against them was to take photos of their wounded and make sure the family members, neighbors, and children of the police got to see them. This was a brilliant bit of magic. The individual human beings who made up that reified abstraction, “the police,” were stripped of that identity by a spell of unnaming, and turned back into neighbors, husbands, children, parents: people who were part of civil society, and subject to its standards and social pressures. That couldn’t have been achieved if Otpor had reified and protested “police brutality,” since that act would have strengthened the reification of police as something other than ordinary members of society.
The same point should be made about one of the most pervasive reifications in “Globalize Liberation,” the reification of the existing order of society itself. David Solnit’s otherwise excellent introduction (pp. xi-xxiv) falls headlong into this trap. Solnit confidently proclaims that “the system” is the cause of the world’s social and ecological problems, and then goes on to define “the system” as the sum total of those problems: war, economic exploitation, and so on. It’s a breathtaking display of circular logic, and invites the retort that “the system” is simply an abstract reification of everything about the world that the progressive community doesn’t like.
Again, Lakey’s account offers a potent alternative. Otpor strategists recognized that the Milosevic dictatorship wasn’t an independent reality imposing itself from above on a passive society. It was simply an arrangement of things within Serbian society, and could only exist with the constant cooperation of millions of ordinary Serbs. The same is true of today’s global corporate economy; it exists because people throughout the world, and especially people in America, uphold it by their actions. In effect, we are “the system.” If we recognize that fact, instead of reifying “the system” as some force alien to us, we can own and then wield our power over it.
II. The Spell of Corporate Triumphalism
The notion that “the system” is something outside the society that constitutes it goes hand in hand with the claim that the struggle against “the system” is entering its most desperate phase right now. Patrick, I’m going to pick on you here, mostly because you indicated a willingness to accept scathing criticism; plenty of other essays in the book fall into this same rhetoric. You start your thoughtful essay “Decolonizing the Revolutionary Imagination” (pp. 161-212) with the words: “Our planet is heading into an unprecedented global crisis. The blatancy of the corporate power grab and the accelerating ecological meltdown is evidence that we do not live in an era where we can afford the luxury of fighting merely the symptoms of the problem.” Language like “doomsday economy” and repeated insistences that we have no choice except all-out struggle feed this sense of desperation.
There’s a strong confirmatory bias at work in discussions of these topics in the activist community, which has resulted in the widespread acceptance of statements that can’t be justified by the facts. You comment, for example, that the current ecological transformation is “the sixth great extinction,” that it’s more rapid than any other, and that it threatens the survival of the Earth’s biosphere itself. This rhetoric is extremely common in activist circles these days but it’s not actually supported by scientific research into the Earth’s past extinction crises, which I’d encourage you to look into. There have been more than twenty great extinctions since the end of the Precambrian Period, not five (or six); many past extinctions were much swifter than the present example (the K-T event that wiped out the dinosaurs was almost instant, since it involved an asteroid smashing into the Earth); and the Earth’s biosphere has easily weathered crises much more drastic than anything it’s facing now. The current crisis is a reality but it doesn’t threaten the survival of life on the planet.
Does this mean that we needn’t worry about the ecological and climatic shifts now under way as a result of human blundering? Hardly. Given that global warming alone may well drown every coastal city in the world under rising oceans, wreck the global agricultural system on which six billion people depend for their daily meals, and send tropical epidemics raging through the temperate world, just in the next century, we have plenty to fret about. As James Lovelock has shown, the earth’s biosphere is an intricate, powerful system that responds homeostatically to cancel out imbalances. Our society’s inept prodding at the biosphere risks kindling a homeostatic response that could flatten the proud towers of our cities and push Homo sapiens to the brink of extinction.
This view of the situation has a solid foundation in science. As a tool for raising questions about the existing order of society and mobilizing individuals and communities, it’s likely to work at least as well as the rhetoric of desperation described above. Yet it’s received very little attention in progressive circles. Partly that’s an effect of the third spell I’ll discuss in this essay; partly, it’s a rhetorical habit, common on the American left from colonial times to the present, of using apocalyptic rhetoric to prod people into listening (though by this point people are pretty well immunized to it). Partly, though, it’s the result of another factor.
This factor is a mythology of corporate triumphalism. Today’s global corporate economy presents itself as the inevitable wave of the future, a rising power that will master the destiny of the planet sometime soon if it hasn’t done so already. Francis Fukuyama’s widely read essay “The End of History” typifies this myth: “liberal democracy” (that is, corporate socialism manipulating the republican systems of an earlier era of politics) is the most efficient and therefore the best possible form of government, and so history defined as the evolutionary clash between competing forms of government is at an end.
Fukuyama’s essay is a masterpiece of unintentional comedy, with its implied portrayal of George Herbert Walker Bush as Hegel’s “world-historical personality” — am I the only person who thinks that Bush the First talks like Hardy Har Har, the chronically depressed hyena in the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons? — but it also offers a glimpse into the workings of the myth. It starts with a clever reification, turning six thousand years of wildly diverse events into a single process called “history,” which by Hegel’s definition has one driving force (conflict between forms of government) and one goal (the triumph of the “best,” or rather, the most efficient form of government). By this act of name magic, all previous time becomes a process leading inevitably to today’s global corporate system, and the total triumph of that system becomes the natural conclusion of everything that’s come before: the end of history.
Progressive activists might be expected to challenge this forcefully, and present new ways of seeing the past that either dissolve “history” altogether or redefine it in ways that foster social change. Instead, most modern progressive thought accepts the myth of corporate triumphalism intact, merely changing the moral signs (”good” becomes “bad” and vice versa) and tacking on a final chapter in which, at the last possible minute, the good guys win out anyway. The resulting story makes for good fantasy (it’s the basic plot of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”) but bad strategy. Worse, by fitting the social change community into the dramatic role of heroic fighters for a lost cause, it subtly encourages activists to put themselves in positions where they will heroically fail to accomplish their goals, thus playing the part the story defines for them.
As a contrarian thought experiment, imagine that by some accident (a head-on collision between two time machines?) you find yourself holding a history of the world published in San Francisco in the year 3004. You eagerly turn to the pages about the early 21st century, hoping to find out how a triumphant, expansionistic corporate system was defeated by a heroic minority of global activists. What you find instead is something quite different…
“By the dawn of the 21st century it was clear that the ramshackle structure of economic and political compromises that followed the disastrous Great European War of 1914-1945 was falling apart, and taking Euro-American global hegemony with it. Efforts to expand that hegemony’s technological base in the late 20th century by introducing supersonic transports, large-scale nuclear power, and other dubious advances went nowhere in the face of popular resistance and economic realities, while spectacularly inept handling of currency exchange problems by would-be “global managers” among the governing elites put formidable strains on a faltering system. The triumphant imperialism of the 19th century had given way, and the global capitalism that followed it proved too weak to resist the forces of change.
“From 1970 on, elite groups knew they faced severe resource and energy shortages in the near future, and from 1990 on the catastrophic threat of global climate change could no longer be ignored (though it was publicly denied), but the system they were expected to manage lacked the flexibility and resources to respond to these hard realities. Nor could it cope with the ballooning of a fictive economy built on exotic financial instruments — essentially unpayable IOUs with nothing backing them — which emerged in response to pervasive weakness all through the productive sectors of the economy. Increasingly frantic transfers of jobs, resources and wealth across nation state borders propped up the system over the short term, but the resulting ecological and economic damage fanned the flames of popular discontent and brought the final collapse steadily closer.
“2001 marked the beginning of the end. In that year, another fiscal crisis mismanaged by the elites pushed the nation state of Argentina (now part of the Confederacion de Vecindades de America del Sur) into economic and political meltdown. Argentines responded by building new, locally based networks for decision making and exchange, and as these expanded the remnants of national government slowly flickered out. Fiscal and ecological crises elsewhere in Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe in 2005, 2008, and 2010 saw more than a dozen nation states start coming apart in the same way. Even in those nation states that managed to hold together through the troubled first decade of the 21st century, economic dislocation and political failure drove the growth of new local systems on the Argentine model. As news of these spread over the Internet, it fed a growing awareness that the old order’s days were numbered.
“In the end, the breakup of the West Antarctic ice sheet in 2012 proved to be simply one crisis too many for a beleaguered, malfunctioning, and overloaded system. Faced with rising sea levels and coastal flooding worldwide, hamstrung by an unmanageable burden of unpayable debt from the fictive economy, and targeted by overwhelming popular resentment due to their failure to take preventive action against the global warming crisis, the world’s economic and political elites were left without any viable options at all. Most members of the elites were killed outright or fled into hiding. In their absence, the old society fell apart in a matter of months, leaving local networks and neighborhood councils to pick up the pieces.”
Take a moment to think of your own place today in that history of elite failure and collapse. To mimic the effects of confirmatory bias, think of everything you know that fits that vision of the future. Make an effort to experience the world around you as though today’s global corporate system isn’t a triumphant monster, but a brittle, ungainly, jerry-rigged contraption whose managers are vainly scrambling to hold it together against a rising tide of crises. See the issues that engage your activism in that light, not as though you’re desperate, but as though the system is. It’s a very different perspective from that of most activists, and reaching it even in imagination might take some work, but give it your best try.
The point I’d like to make, once you’ve tried on both stories of the future, is that both of them — the story of corporate triumph and the story of corporate failure — explain the past and present equally well. The actions of the IMF and the World Bank in the last decade or so, for example, can be explained as a power grab by a doomsday economy in the driver’s seat, but they can equally well be explained as desperation moves by a faltering elite faced with a world situation that’s more unsteady and ungovernable by the day. The same is true of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and anything else from the current-events page you wish to name.
Which of these stories is true? Wrong question. The events that define either story haven’t happened yet, and which story people believe could well determine which way the ending turns out. If people believe that the global corporate system is invulnerable, most of them will make their peace with it and come to rely on it, and their actions will give it more power. If people believe that the global corporate system is doomed, most of them will withdraw their support from it and begin seeking alternatives — and that in itself could doom it. Ask yourself, then, which of these stories fosters more hope, gives more encouragement to alternative visions of society, and more effectively cuts at the mental foundations of today’s economic and political systems.
Yet of course these aren’t the only two choices. Philosophers of science have agonized over the hard realization that any given set of facts can be explained by an infinite number of hypotheses. Mages, by contrast, revel in the freedom this implies. The freedom to reinterpret the world, to abandon a story of desperation for one of possibility and hope, is basic to the worldview of magic. It’s a freedom that today’s progressive community might find it useful to embrace as well.
III. The Spell of Rescue
But the progressive community’s embrace of the rhetoric of desperation and the mythology of corporate triumphalism have another source, as I’ve suggested above. Another spell or, to use a model that’s particularly appropriate here,another story keeps these patterns in place.
Patrick, I’m going to pick on you again, though I could as well discuss most of the essays in the book. “Decolonizing the Revolutionary Imagination” tells a story with three characters. One is innocent, helpless, and in need of rescue. The second is sinister, devious, and the cause of the first character’s predicament. The third is heroic, idealistic, and the first character’s only hope of rescue. The biosphere, the corporate “doomsday economy,” and the activist community are the names you give these three characters. Other essays in the book tell the same story but give the characters different names. Still, you know whose story I’m talking about. It’s the story of Dudley Do-right.
On the off chance that you somehow missed out on watching the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, where he originally appeared, I’ll summarize. Dudley Do-right was a Mountie, blond, heroic, and as thick as a brick. His girlfriend Nell Fenwick was always being tied to railroad tracks by the villainous Snidely Whiplash. Dudley rescued her time after time, to the sound of Snidely’s trademark line, “Curses, foiled again!” The next episode, though, there’s Snidely tying Nell to the tracks again as Dudley gallops to the rescue. The roles of the three characters are as predictable as a corporate press release: Snidely has the active role and gets the action going in each episode, Nell’s role is passive (getting tied up and rescued), and Dudley’s is reactive (foiling Snidely and rescuing Nell).
Map the story of Dudley Do-right onto your article and it fits down to the fine details. “The system” has the active role, and it’s always tying someone or other to the railroad tracks. The biosphere, in this case, waits passively to be rescued. The progressive community reacts by galloping to the rescue, and Whiplash Petroleum issues a press release saying “Curses, foiled again!” Dudley uses direct (re)action of various kinds — at the point of assumption (he tries to talk Snidely out of tying people to railroad tracks), destruction (he unties Nell from the tracks), production (he flags down the train), and so on. The next episode, though, there’s Snidely tying Nell to the tracks again. And again. And again…
What’s happened here is another bit of magic gone awry. The magic in question is what the system of magic I practice calls “assuming a godform.” For certain kinds of magic, mages in my tradition choose one of the gods or goddesses of ancient Egypt, based on the energy they want to bring into focus — Isis for love, Horus for power, Nephthys for wisdom, and so on — and first visualize, then actively experience themselves as that deity. In its psychological dimension (it has others) assuming a godform is a way of temporarily redefining self-concept. Who you think you are defines what you think you can do, and that sets the limits on what you can do. Assuming a godform allows the mage to step outside the limits of ordinary self-concepts by taking one aspect of human potential and raising it to the power of infinity.
People do this in a less conscious way all the time. Kids assume popular culture “godforms” right and left — look, I’m Spider-Man! Most adults do it a bit more subtly, but if you watch them and know your pop culture you can usually figure out what images they’ve assumed. You’ll also notice, though, that many of them are stuck in a single image, repeating the same role over and over, even when it’s conterproductive. I suggest that this is what’s happened to the American progressive community; it’s gotten stuck in the godform of Dudley Do-right.
No, I don’t think today’s activists literally spent too much time watching the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and got mesmerized by Canada’s least intelligent Mountie. Like any satire, Dudley Do-right pokes fun at familiar themes; we laugh at him because we all know the story he’s lampooning. The self-concept that the progressive community has embraced is the one Dudley Do-right makes fun of, the image of the heroic rescuer. Assuming that image in the first place was good strategy: an effective counter to negative images of “protesters,” not to mention a way to impose the image of Snidely Whiplash on defenders of privilege. What makes it a problem is that activists got stuck in the role and can’t step out of it. They can’t see themselves as anything but heroic rescuers. As confirmatory bias comes into play, they inevitably see the world around them in terms of Nells to rescue and Snidelys to vanquish.
The spell of Dudley Do-right has much to do with the purely reactive stance of the American activist community. When activists define their role wholly in terms of resistance and refusal, of “articulat[ing] a NO to the system” (David Solnit’s phrase, p. xv) rather than pursuing a positive ideal, they guarantee that they’ll perpetually be scrambling to counter some new assault by the system, trying to maintain an inadequate status quo against the threat of further losses, rather than making the system and its defenders scramble to counter efforts to change the status quo for the better. This reactive stance comes out of the Dudley Do-right role, since the heroic rescuer is always reactive; it’s the Snidelys of the world who get each episode moving by grabbing another Nell and tying her to the railroad tracks.
Dudley also underlies some of the less productive rhetorical habits of the activist community. Patrick, I’m going to use your sidebar “Framing the Climate Crisis” on p. 182 as an example; it’s fairly mild compared to some of what we’ve all seen, but it’ll make the point. You argue that “[i]t’s up to activists to ensure that people understand that a small cartel of energy corporations and their financial backers knowingly destabilized our planet’s climate for their own personal gain. This may turn out to be the most devastating crime ever perpetrated against humanity, the planet, and future generations.” Grand rhetoric, but I trust you’re aware that it’s a fantastic hypersimplification of a hugely complex issue. To be precise, it’s a Dudley Do-right definition, in which activists are Dudley, energy corporations are Snidely Whiplash, and “humanity, the planet, and future generations” are a collective Nell.
Is it a useful redefinition? Depends on what you’re trying to achieve. It sounds as though you hope to target the energy companies for destruction by using them as scapegoats for disasters caused by global warming. If that’s indeed your intention, it might work, but since global warming’s sources go far beyond the mere Snidelyhood of oil companies (and include the actions of the energy-squandering American middle class you skillfully dismiss as “soccer moms”), having oil company CEOs torn to pieces by howling mobs won’t actually do much for humanity, the planet, or future generations. In the meantime, the rhetoric of demonization helps guarantee that the issue of global warming will become more fiercely polarized and further from a solution than ever.
An alternative approach might be worth considering. Again, George Lakey’s discussion of the Otpor movement is relevant. The Otpor strategists deliberately avoided polarization of the sort that American progressives embrace reflexively. Instead of demonizing the police, they pursued a policy of outreach, building bridges that ultimately reached into the upper levels of the police bureaucracy. That paid off handsomely in the final crisis of the Milosevic regime, when the police stood by and did nothing as crowds seized the Serbian Parliament building. If activists in this country took an Otpor approach to people in the energy companies, instead of painting Snidely Whiplash’s long black mustache on them, they could get similar results.
Of course this would require giving up the very real emotional payoffs of the Dudley Do-right role; the rush of being a rescuing hero is a potent drug, and so is the righteous indignation of knowing your enemies are Satan (or Snidely) incarnate. Letting go of Dudleyhood can also require giving up more tangible payoffs; as Patrick points out in an excellent analysis of the professionalization of dissent (pp.193-199), significant parts of the activist community have been bought out and turned into junior partners in the corporate system. Playing Dudley Do-right is among other things an effective way to ignore one’s own complicity in arrangements of privilege and exploitation, since everything can be blamed on a Snidely Whiplash of one’s choosing (such as “the system”).
IV. Binaries, Ternaries, and Shifting Levels
I’d like to shift gears here and talk a little more directly about the magical dimension of all this. One of the interesting things about the spell of Dudley Do-right is that it’s a dysfunctional ternary. James, we’ve discussed magical number theory at quite some length, but again I don’t know how much of that you’ve shared with Patrick, and if either of you show this to anyone else the chance that they’ll have the least idea of what I’m talking about is pretty slim. So I’ll try to sum up the elements of magical philosophy in 500 words or less.
Toward the beginning of this letter I mentioned that the structures of consciousness are tools of magic. In the system of magic I practice, those structures are identified with the numbers from 1 to 10, understood not as quantities but as abstract relationships. You can experience anything through any number (though numbers above 10 denote relationships too complex for the human nervous system to handle). Each number has its strengths and its weaknesses. If you’re working deliberately with the structures of consciousness — which is to say, if you’re a mage — you choose the structure/number you use based on the effects you want to get. Most of the time, for reasons too complex to get into here, you choose one, two, or three.
Anything seen through the filter of the number one is called a unary. When you see something as a unary, you highlight qualities in it such as wholeness, indivisibility, and isolation. See it through the number two, as a binary, and you’ll highlight different qualities such as division, conflict, balance, and complementarity. See it through the number three and still different qualities such as change and complexity will be highlighted. All these have practical implications. If you want people to cooperate and build community, get them to think of themselves as part of a unary; if you want them to quarrel and resist change, convince them they’re on one side of a binary; if you want them to make change, make them think of their community and their world as a ternary.
Our society has a persistent habit of always seeing things in binaries. The binary is symbolically masculine — think of the ithyphallic straight line, defined by any two points — so this isn’t surprising! Our politics divide up into left and right, our ethics into good and evil, our most popular religions oppose one god and one devil, and so on. Campaigns for social change are no different, and plenty of activists think they can get where they want by opposing something. In a binary, though, every action is balanced by an opposite reaction, so thinking in binaries is very problematic if you want to foster change.
If you’re a mage, you respond to dysfunctions of this sort by shifting numbers. The traditional rule here is that numbers always change in a specific order: one becomes two, two becomes three, and three becomes one and shifts to another level. (The reasons for this rule, again, are too complex to go into here.) Thus if you’ve got a situation that presents itself as a binary, and you want to change it, you can’t effectively turn it back into a unary — it’ll just pop back into being a binary again — but you can turn the binary into a ternary by redefining the situation in terms of three independent factors, rather than two. This is called neutralizing a binary, and it’s a very common bit of magical strategy.
The “good cop/bad cop” routine is a move of this sort. The cops redefine the binary between policeman and suspect by having one officer act friendly, while the other comes on like Attila the Hun. The binary opposition dissolves, and fairly often the suspect talks. The American political establishment uses the same move on the progressive community every four years, with the Democrats playing good cop and the GOP playing bad cop; activists time and again get sucked into the ternary, and put their time and energy into a candidate whose only claim on their attention is that he’s not quite as bad as the other guy. It doesn’t help that the two parties switch roles and do the identical move on conservative activists too.
James, you and I have talked at quite a bit of length about ways that activists can take control of this dynamic and use ternaries for their own purposes — for example, by having “good cop” moderate progressives and “bad cop” radicals double-team a corporation or a government. But it’s a crucial mistake to oppose “good” ternaries with “bad” binaries, and thus turn the relationship between them into a binary. Every number is appropriate in some places and a waste of time in others, and the Dudley Do-right scenario is an example of a ternary that’s a waste of time. The three characters circle endlessly around one another; you’ve got action, complexity, and an addictive emotional payoff of self-regarding heroism and self-righteous indignation. What you don’t have is a resolution of the problems the progressive community thinks it’s fighting.
The magical response to the Dudley Do-right trap is to shift from ternary to unary, which means recognizing that Dudley, Nell, and Snidely aren’t three independent factors at all, but three interdependent elements of a single structure of experience. As long as activists see themselves as heroic Dudleys, they’ll inevitably see every problem in terms of Nells to rescue and Snidelys to rescue them from. Any one role defines the other two. Leaving that behind, in turn, involves shifting to a new level of self-awareness. Many activists these days honestly believe that the three roles are out there in the world, that the biosphere really is tied helplessly to the railroad tracks and the board of directors of Whiplash Petroleum really are twiddling their black mustaches and going “nya ha ha” as the train approaches. Banishing the spell requires waking up to the fact that these roles are in the mind of the observer, and that it’s possible to define the situation in other ways.
This is one of the reasons why, earlier on, I deliberately proposed several models for the current situation that don’t fit the Dudley Do-right scenario at all. For the biosphere to be a suitable Nell for Dudley to rescue, she has to be helplessly tied to the railroad track; the fact that this particular Nell might actually be an irritated grizzly bear, fully capable of breaking the ropes and tearing Snidely (and Dudley) limb from limb, doesn’t fit the story even though it may fit the facts. In the same way, the future history that shows Snidely himself tied to the railroad track, flailing about helplessly as the train approaches, chucks the Dudley scenario out the window. Redefine one role and the entire story changes.
It may be high time for some such redefinition. I’m heartened by the words of the anonymous aboriginal woman quoted on p. 417: “If you come only to help me, you can go back home. But if you consider my struggle as part of your struggle for survival, then maybe we can work together.” In the terms I’ve used here, she’s saying that she isn’t a helpless Nell awaiting rescue, and progressives from the industrial world aren’t heroic Dudleys riding to her help. She’s cast a spell of renaming that turns the Dudley Do-right ternary into a unary of equals working together for survival. Can that same spell be extended to the entire project of social change? I believe so.
V. Learning New Magics
I’ve put quite a bit of time into critiquing aspects of the activist community in this letter, and for all I know one or both of you may see that as a frontal assault against everything you believe. That’s not my intention, though. I’ve tried, borrowing your language, to apply some direct action at the point of assumption — that is, to challenge some of the inadequately examined assumptions that are hindering a powerful global movement for positive change.
What I see in “Globalize Liberation” generally is a situation in which theory hasn’t caught up to practice. Shopworn slogans and reifications long past their pull date jostle new tactics and strategies that the old language doesn’t really describe. Patrick, I’ve lambasted your essay “Decolonizing the Revolutionary Imagination” several times, but it’s also in many ways the most impressive and magically sophisticated section of the book. Yes, it suffers from each of the problems I’ve noted, but it also breaks very promising ground.
I’d like to point out two things it does that put it way past many other attempts to analyse the situation and propose strategies. First, it focuses on the central place of imagination in the making and unmaking of social reality. That’s spectacularly important. The politics of reality, as Theodore Roszak pointed out in “Where the Wasteland Ends” (1972), is a politics of the imagination. It’s not just that change has to be thinkable before it’s possible, though this is true and important; it’s also that imagination can change the world by itself. The collapse of eastern Europe’s communist bloc in 1989 happened because people stopped imagining themselves and their societies in ways that made putting up with a bad system reasonable. Remember the dazed expressions on the faces of so many former communist heads of state and secret police chiefs? Their power had always been imaginary; political power always is. What happened in 1989 was that people recognized that, and imagined it out of existence.
The essay goes on to say that “[i]f we want to talk about reality in the singular…we must talk about ecological reality” (p. 200). Here you’re selling your own insights short. I grant that as mental maps go, ecology — with its keen awareness of limits and consequences — is a helluva lot more useful now than the economic models that powered industrial society through the glory days of the Age of Exuberance, but it’s still a map, not the territory it tries to describe. If it’s allowed to fossilize into a dogmatic ideology, it could become just as toxic as the mental maps it’s starting to replace.
If we want to talk about reality in the singular, we haven’t yet grasped the power of the imagination, because “reality” is always in flux, shaped by a complex dialogue between the blooming, buzzing confusion of the universe of our experience and the world-defining powers of the imagination — and the result is never quite the same for any two individuals, ever. The Zapatista quest for “a world where many worlds fit” offers more than any one vision of what’s real. That being said, I find the idea of earth-centered politics very useful, since it focuses attention on the raw experience of natural systems. If I may speak briefly from a position wholly within the magical worldview, how trees and stones imagine the world is at least as important as how human beings do so, even if the human beings are ecologically literate.
The second crucial thing “Decolonizing the Revolutionary Imagination” does is encourage self-awareness in the activist community. The edgy discussion of the professionalization of dissent, and the brief but lethal definition of “defector syndrome” in the appendix, challenge two of the most obvious places where activism has become its own reward rather than a means to an end. My comments about the spell of Dudley Do-right are aimed at another. When activism becomes a masturbatory act of self-gratification, as it sometimes does, it’s just another part of the existing order — a pressure valve that allows the disaffected to vent their passions harmlessly.
This is where “Globalize Liberation,” with its focus on Third World activism and experience, has the most to offer American progressives. The essays on Zapatismo and the Argentine experience are among the most promising things I’ve read in social change literature in the last two decades. They point to powerful redefinitions of activism and the transformation of society, and if activists here in America pay close attention the results could be spectacular. The principles Manuel Callahan cites in his essay “Zapatismo Beyond Chiapas” (pp. 217-228) — refusal, space, and listening — would be worth applying within the activist community, as well as in interactions with the rest of American society. Can you imagine a group of radicals from San Francisco moving to Pittsburgh, and subordinating themselves to the community in the middle of the Rust Belt? If you can’t, work on the idea until you can.
I could go on about many other strong points in the essays in “Globalize Liberation,” but this letter has already ballooned to unjustifiable size and I’ll limit myself to one: the theme of Marina Sitrin’s brilliant piece “Weaving Imagination and Creation: The Future In the Present” (pp. 263-276). The notion of prefigurative politics itself is profoundly magical. Ritual magic, after all, is prefigurative politics on the individual level; the mage works with symbols, and focuses will and imagination through that act to make the symbol prefigure the reality. To do the same thing on the scale of nations and peoples is an immense challenge, but it’s also a powerful possibility. It also points toward modes of politics — parapolitics might be a better term — that use the prefigurative power of the imagination to change the world without using anything that looks like politics in any sense we’d recognize today.
What I’m seeing most clearly in “Globalize Liberation” is a movement in transition, partly anchored in tactics and analyses from past decades, partly working with the improvisations of the present, partly reaching out to the new possibilities of the future. It’s a promising sight. As I’ve suggested in talking about the myth of corporate triumphalism, the existing order may not be nearly so solid as it tries to make itself appear. It can’t be repeated often enough that the modern industrial state isn’t the natural endpoint (or endgame) of some inevitable historical process. It’s what philosophers call a contingent reality; things happened to turn out this way, but they didn’t have to, and there are good reasons why the future probably won’t be a duplicate of the past. As we move into the twilight of the industrial age, the old bets are off.