Excerpt: All That Is Sacred Is Profaned
Here’s a short excerpt of Rhyd Wildermuth’s new book, ALL THAT IS SACRED IS PROFANED: A PAGAN GUIDE TO MARXISM, due for release 21 June, 2019.
Ordering information is here or at the end of this excerpt.
From Chapter Three: The Birth of Capitalism
History as progress or history as process?
Before we look deeply into the roots of capitalism and the way it was born into the world, we need to have a brief discussion about history itself.
As people who live in capitalist societies, who have only ever known capitalism, we tend to accept the idea that history is a progression from lower or less complex states of existence towards higher or more complex states. Also, we make value-judgments about those states of existence—more complex and modern is “better,” while simpler and older is “worse.”
Try a thought experiment with me. Imagine what daily life looked like 500 years ago in what we now call France. Try to put yourself in the place of the average peasant (not a lord or lady). Imagine what you might be doing every day. Picture what you might be wearing and eating, where you might live, what your family looks like. Imagine what it's like to work, what sort of activities you do every day, and what it feels like afterward.
Now also try to sense that world—what it feels like, what it smells and tastes like, what sounds you hear when you wake and go to sleep.
How did you feel about this image? What kind of judgments may have come into your head? Did you cringe a little when I asked about “smell,” perhaps imagining the reek of animal dung, body odor, rotting teeth, or other unpleasant things? Did you perhaps imagine yourself tired, sick from illnesses that couldn't be treated back then, exhausted from the relentless work of farming, sewing, and doing all the other things required to survive? Did you maybe imagine yourself bored, with nothing to read or watch, no internet or smartphone or even music to listen to whenever you wanted?
If you had negative feelings about what life might have been like, you are hardly alone. In fact, this is the dominant capitalist conception of what life was like before our modern era, and is what is quite often depicted in films and television. Life back then, according to this image, was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
What if I told you that this way of looking at the past is as new as capitalism itself?
Societies before ours, and even some societies that exist now, don't think of the past as a place where we were all miserable. In fact, there are some cultures that do not or didn't have a conception of “past” at all—what came before and what will come were more like places on a map or parts of a house. They were locations, not moments that have disappeared completely because they no longer occur.
Much of the reason why we look at the past as we do now comes from a particular world-view that arose in Europe through a mix of Christianity, “The Enlightenment,” and capitalism itself. For instance, the words I quoted above (“poor, nasty, brutish, and short”) come from a 17th century Enlightenment philosopher named Thomas Hobbes: he is one of the people who helped create this conception of the past in the first place.
The “Progress Narrative”
I'll call this general conception of history (where the past is worse than the present) the “Progress Narrative.” In this view of history, the present is always “better” than the past because it is more complex and more civil. Those who lived in that past might not have meant to be brutish and backward, but they had little choice because they were not yet “enlightened.” The ancient world was full of “superstition” and “primitive” ways of thinking, institutions like human sacrifice and slavery, and people lived in a kind of intellectual darkness. On the other hand, the present is better because we've “progressed” beyond all those ideas and institutions. We've collectively “seen the light” (the Enlightenment) and therefore live in superior, advanced cultures.
If this idea sounds a little Christian or imperialist, you're not wrong—Thomas Hobbes and other Enlightenment thinkers like him were indeed Christian, and they provided the primary moral and intellectual foundation for European colonization of the rest of the world.
Others, such as Adam Smith (whose concept of the “invisible hand of the market” is oft-quoted by defenders of capitalism) also saw the past as something to be disgusted by and capitalism something to be embraced, especially because capitalism was constantly “improving” the way humans produced, consumed, and exchanged.
The “Process Narrative”
A different way of looking at history exists, one that Marx and Engels proposed. In this view, history should be seen as a process or series of processes. This is called historical materialism, or Marxist dialectical materialism. But rather than chasing one of the most confusing and debated aspects of Marxist thought down a rabbit hole, in this book we'll talk about this view as the Process Narrative.
In the Process Narrative of history, the conditions of life are constantly in flux, changing according to larger processes (forces) which conflict with each other. Value judgments about the past and the present are useless in this narrative, and a great example of how this plays out is to imagine an oak tree.
In the ProGress Narrative of history, the acorn from which the oak sprouted, or the sapling it became, are both lesser than the full-grown oak in the present.
In the ProCess Narrative, however, both the acorn and the oak are both processes of the same thing—in fact, the tree itself is a process, a thing always becoming, rather than a thing ever finished.
If this way of looking at the world sounds a bit Pagan, it's because it is also an animist view, while the Progress Narrative is a Christian (primarily Protestant) view.
Protestants tend to see the world as a progression from the fall of man in the Garden of Eden to the second coming of Jesus Christ (at which point history will be fulfilled). Animist cultures, on the other hand, tend to think more in mythic cycles or in non-linear time—stories, rather than histories.
Nature Is All
Marxist Historical Materialism (the Process Narrative) makes one other assertion that we'll need to understand before looking at the birth of capitalism.
That assertion is this: human thought reflects the material world because humans are part of that world. That is, there is no realm of “ideals” that exists before the world; everything that we think is a reflection of our experiences as humans living in societies that humans have created. The human body is not just something we live in but something that we are, and it's that experience of being human in the world which leads us to “discover” (really—to imagine) ideal situations.
Compare this to one of the foundational ideas of the Progress Narrative: that there is an “ideal state” of existence towards which society is always reaching (and, in the more Christian variants, an “ideal state” from which we have fallen and need to return). In that view, what is ideal already exists in our heads and it's that ideal against which we should judge human experience.
There's a simpler way of understanding this, one many Pagans are very familiar with. In many magical conceptions of the world, there are four elements which comprise all of existence: air, fire, water, and earth. These elements are always intermixing to create the world: for instance, the human body is comprised of earth (its structure and material existence), water (our bodies are mostly water and are flexible), air (the oxygen we breathe and the carbon dioxide we create), and fire (the heat we create and take in, the transmutation of food into energy). All of these elements are physical (material) forces that are always in relationship with each other.
In Western society, however, we tend to think of a split between mind (or spirit) and matter, and the mind/spirit is greater than matter. “Positive thinking” is one of the ways this manifests—if you just imagine yourself happy or rich, you'll become happy or rich. Putting an optimistic spin on life, or visualizing world peace—these are other consequences of this worldview.
A Marxist framework points to the actually-existing circumstances that are causing poverty and war, and show how material conditions lead to such suffering. In this way, the Marxist framework can be said to be more Pagan—it tells us to look at the world around us, study it, understand how processes work together for or against certain ways of being, and says that it isn't our theories and positive thinking that changes the world, it's our actions.
This framework is also deeply animist. It allows us to see the past and the people who lived in it not as failed “primitive” states but as part of the same processes which exist now. Our ancestors are not faded memories but parts of our lives in the same way that a fallen tree continues to nourish the forest it was a part of. The dead live on, not just in our thoughts but literally in the very fabric of our material existence. We walk on streets and live in buildings built by people who no longer live—their work continues to shape our daily existence, whether we acknowledge them or not.