Why Animism and Polytheism are Radical Religions in Capitalist Societies
A good deal of animism and polytheism’s power, as it is expressed in outward form, is that it directly challenges the overculture’s directions to consume and produce for their own sake. Slavoj Žižek notes that products like Coke produce their own perpetual desire. In “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”, he notes that Coke self-perpetuates by two ways, in that it makes one’s duty to consume and enjoy Coke, and that the consumption of it leads to the thirst that leads a person to want to consume it more. After all, it is a drink, but by its nature it produces further thirst rather than satiating it.
The paradox of Coke is that you are thirsty, you drink it. But, as everyone knows, the more you drink it, the more thirsty you get.
Polytheism demands us to understand that while pleasure, the satiation of thirst, and enjoyment may be side-benefits of our duties, enjoyment itself is not our duty. The polytheist worldview demands that we see ourselves not as consumers, but participators in this world. It also demands us to reject the idea of excess being with us forever. Why?
Gebo is gift-for-a-gift. While this gifting may not be an exact equivalent exchange, at least in the moment, the embrace of reciprocity requires the rejection of excess. If one is constantly consuming there is no way to reciprocate. Gebo requires a cessation of one’s consumption at some point, and a giving back at another. For instance, in ancient Germanic and Scandinavian societies, one fed the guest until they were full. It was on a guest to say they were full. Part of the give and take of such a situation is that the guest is given food until they are satisfied, but the guest’s reciprocity is not to eat or drink to the detriment of the host. Excess kills the Gebo relationship between guest and host. The host may not ask the guest to come back, and additionally, the host may have been bereft of food or drink to carry them through the coming winter without severely tightening their belt. Likewise, a stingy host can make a guest feel unwelcome, or strain a relationship by not valuing the guest’s needs.
Expanding this notion of guest and host out further, humanity is severely unbalanced because there is simply no way that the excesses of mountain top removal or the destruction of old growth forest can be remediated. While we cannot correct, at least within our lifetimes, the excesses of such a practice, it is within our purview as guest to the Earth Gods, such as Jörð, and to the landvaettir to live upon Her/Them in such a way that we conduct ourselves going forward as good guests. Polytheism is radical in its view because it not only gives moral dimension to our relationship with the world as a or many living Beings, but to all other things that occupy that place.
Later in the documentary, Žižek states:
Antagonism, class struggles, and other tangents is something inherent to Capitalism. ..Instability is the way Capitalism functions.
Polytheism’s radicalization within capitalist and capitalist-leaning countries is present because it holds sacred what capitalism finds disposable; any social or legal contracts capitalism makes is easily shredded or ignored for the convenience of the movement of capital and the allocation of wealth. Any piece of land is a bargaining chip or dollar amount, rather than possessing intrinsic value. Honor and Gebo in regard’s to one’s word in capitalism is a matter of calculating loss or gain. This poisonous destruction of honor and Gebo can occur in government and private companies alike, as the calculating in this case is very similar. Look at how easy it is for a State to shed its duties to its people through earned retirement benefits, such as pensions. Look at how easy it was for Detroit to cut so much from the bottom line of fixed-income workers, people who had given 20, 30 years to the city. So quick as a document is signed, those things are cut. Look at how easy it is for public lands to be sold to Graymont, 10,000 acres with at least a hundred years of ‘ownership’ are gained with barely a review, and a weak protest from the DNR. So too with companies like BP, Exxon, and their ilk, who poison the land and balk when their money is demanded for the places they have destroyed in their exploration, mining, and refining processes. They are hardly an exception, what with the clamoring of all these companies eager for what resources they can get their hands on, contributing little to nothing to the society that they take their tax incentives, resources, and cheap employment from. Enbridge Energy, despite its excesses of capital and intentional risks it has taken with Michigan’s environment and accordingly the health of its citizens, and its failures to protect the Kalamazoo River, is still not sharing the risk assessment for the pipeline under the Mackinaw Bridge. It is still pushing for the 60 year old pipeline to continue carrying oil despite the age of the pipeline, its track record, and the concerns of those of us who live near it, or whose waters will become poisoned when it leaks or breaks.
Animism and Polytheisms’ basic premise is a (or many) powerful social and spiritual contract(s), understanding(s), and/or relationship(s) between a worshiper and their God(s), Ancestors, and/or spirits. Each offering builds up the relationship between them, further cementing this relationship, this social/spiritual contract expressed through reciprocity. Each time Gebo is made, it furthers the spiritual growth and communication between the worshiper and their Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir. Exponential growth is not part of the expectation of a polytheist viewpoint because 1) such a thing is an impossibility in all but the abstract, and 2) our own Gods can and in many cases, do go through life cycles or ways of change themselves. Our Gods do not remain static, so our relationships cannot be so. If we cannot expect our Gods to do such a thing, how can we expect ourselves, or our world to?
Ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world, how we perceive each meaning, and so on and so on…to step out of ideology is a painful experience.
In this way, with using They Live as the backdrop, Žižek talks about ideology as our framing device. How it is formed really without us thinking, it is our response to the world, how we frame our understanding and reactions to it. It is the basis for how we relate to one another, things, the world around us, the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir. It helps us to determine what we cultivate in our lives because it determines what is important to cultivate in the first place.
The extreme violence of liberation. You must be forced to be free. If you only trust your spontaneous sense of ideology you will never get free. Freedom hurts.
Animists and polytheists, myself included, have written about the Filter as, among other things, a Being/thing that acts as a filter on our relationships with the Holy Powers. One of its most insidious and hard to disrupt ways of doing this is acting through the spontaneous ideologies generated by the way that our society hard-conditions us to accept the ways of doing things as ‘normal’, and to reject the ways I have talked above in which we are called as polytheists to live with the world and the Holy Powers. There is a loss that comes with accepting and understanding ourselves as polytheists. We lose the ability to indulge in our over-culture’s wanton destruction of the environment, indigenous peoples, and sacred places. We lose the ability to stand by and be at ease with the way our energy is mined for, made, and pollutes. We lose the ability to be mindless consumers. It is far easier to be so, if only because that is the dominant ideology. Lived polytheism requires thought, discernment, care, living relationships, and an entirely different frame of mind than the over-culture. After all, the ways of relationality in capitalism is through the consumed thing.
It was Marx who, long ago, emphasized that a commodity is never just a simple object that we buy and consume. A commodity is an object full of theological, even metaphysical niceties. Its presence always reflects an invisible transcendence. The classical publicity for Coke quite openly refers to this absent, invisible quality. Coke is The Real Thing, or Coke, That’s It. What is that It, the Real Thing? Its not just another positive property of Coke, something that can be described or pinpointed to something more. The indescribable excess which is the object cause of my desire. In our postmodern societies we are obliged to enjoy. Enjoyment becomes a kind of weird, perverted duty.
As Žižek points out, the object itself becomes imbued with meaning beyond its function. It becomes a statement of who we are. The shortcut to relationality in this over-culture is that we are what we consume. A person who wears (buys) flannel and listens to (buys) records is a ‘hipster’. A person who eats (buys) a wide varieties of food for enjoyment as well as sustenance is a ‘foodie’. So on and so on, identity becomes less what we do for a living, our ethnicity, religion, etc., and more what we consume. There are several branches of Christianity that fall into this trap of identification with what is consumed as well, i.e. Prosperity Gospel, and megachurch Evangelical Christianity. New Age in its consumption of ‘spiritual tourism’ and ‘The Secret’, especially that idea of the genie in it, play right into this. Pagans, animists, and polytheists can play into this with the idea that one must have things to be in and identified with the religion, and fall into this trap.
It is hard to break this identification with what we buy. In some cases it is damned near impossible. Our necklaces, for instance, act as shorthand symbol-sets for Who we follow or what tradition we are part of. In the case of Wiccans, the way a pentacle’s points face or if they wear jet and amber may say something about who they are within a tradition, or what degree they are. Even the act of not buying things is a way of defining our relationships, and who we are. Gifting has long been a way of solidifying alliances, paying homage to one another, and furthering relationships. So too, has been the making and gifting of things. I think what polytheism challenges us to do, is rather than dispense with the idea of relationships and relationality through objects, is to dispense with the identification with objects. That is, not seeing ourselves as Pagans, animists, or polytheists because we wear a pentacle, Mjolnir, etc., but because of how we identify those objects as markers of our tradition, group, etc. Granted, this is far easier to apply as an idea to our nascent religious movements. It is far harder to apply to the over-culture in which we live.
That is not to say that sacred objects lose their importance because our over-culture relies on things as identification and commoditization/consumption as relationship. Rather, the reason that sacred objects break this mold is they are a way of relating to the Holy Powers and vice versa, whether the object in question is a statue of a God, a cup dedicated to offerings to the Holy Powers, a Mjolnir one wears in mindfulness and dedication to one’s Gods, or a ritual tool of some kind. They have identity that springs out of the relationships they help facilitate or are part of rather than being a means of identity that they ascribe to us. These layers can build, since sacred objects can be made of many things, including naturally occurring items, recycled materials, including man-made materials and mined things.
We cannot consume our sacred objects. They do not belong to us, at least, not exclusively. In the case of my Gods’ statues, while I did buy them, they are not status symbols or ways in which I identify, but embodied vessels of relationality. If they were all gone tomorrow, while I would be sad as I like them for their beauty and function, my identity as a Heathen and Northern Tradition Pagan would not disappear nor would my relationship with the Gods.
Within an animist/polytheist understanding of things, objects themselves need not lose their importance to us. However, the importance of objects changes as our relating to the world changes. So too does the importance of money, and consumption. The whole edifice that keeps capitalism afloat begins to crumble when we cease to relate to our bank account, our objects, and our careers solely as markers for who we are. Without these internal methods of control to shackle us to meaning we can begin to take apart the ways that capitalism forces us into soul-killing ways of life, ways that ultimately will lead to the cessation of the ability of our planet to continue to give us life.
There is a difference between sacred objects and places, though. Lacking relics, such as saints’ bones in the Catholic tradition, most sacred objects in Paganism and polytheism can be replaced if lost or destroyed. Sacred sites, however, cannot. When a sacred site is destroyed, whether it is the Al-Lat lion statue at Palmyra or the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, or further back Donar’s Oak in Hesse Germany, it changes how the people relate to the land. Should the sacred grove in my back yard be destroyed, it will change how I relate to the land even if the trees regrow. While we have few outright temple spaces, how we relate to places remains important. Altars and shrines feature heavily in my family’s religious life, and when they change, they usually mark some kind of change in our seasons, and/or relationships with the Gods. Some day, when we get our own land, we will be making some kind of temple space(s). Whether it is open to the public or not, it will be for the Holy Powers. In order for this sacred land to continue to be so, it needs to continue to be blessed, cared for and used by the Holy Powers, and cared for and worked with by us, as a meeting place. Sacred places are places where relationships with the Holy Powers come forward. Not every place is suitable for this, whether it is this place is isolated and gives greater ability for focus, or this place is in a place a God or vaettr likes, or this is where our Ancestors are buried.
Sacred places are touchstones. While they, as with sacred objects, do not contain the relationship as a whole, they are places of relationality. We relate to the Holy Powers through them. The identification of Donar’s Oak as Irminsul, and a holy place, was such because trees were held in sacred regard by the Germanic people to start with, and this Oak was understood to be Donar’s, and a representation of the World Tree. If we cannot relate to objects and places in a sacred manner, they can be divorced from relationality with the Holy Powers, and with us. When that desecration happens then can places and things be commoditized. It happened when the Enclosures were made, and it happens every time a sacred mountain has sewage water dumped on it so wealthy people can ski, or thousands of acres of old growth forest are sold so companies can get timber and mine limestone. When the sacred places are desacralized, or, to borrow a term, disenchanted, so too are the things which come from the lands.
Žižek notes that we are not merely buying things when we buy things. We often are buying the message and ideology right along with whatever it is at hand.
Are we aware that when we buy a cappuccino from Starbucks we are buying quite a bit of ideology? Which ideology? You know, when you enter a Starbucks store, it is usually displayed with a poster that says ‘Yes, our cappuccino is more expensive than others, but’ and then comes the story, ‘we give 1% to Guatemalan children to keep them healthy or water supply for some Saharan farmers or to save the forests so we can grow organic coffee’ or whatever. Now, I admire the ingenuity of this solution. In the old days of pure, simple consumerism, you bought a product and then felt bad…The idea was you had to do something to counteract your pure, destructive consumerism. What Starbucks enables you to be consumerist without any bad conscience because the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism, is already included in the price of a commodity. You pay a little bit more and you are not just a consumerist, but you do also your duty towards environment, the poor, starving people in Africa, so on and so on. It is, I think, the ultimate form of consumerism.
The problem with consumerism is how rampant and tied in to daily life it is. Often, there is talk of ‘voting with your dollars’, yet, some of the most exploitative practices of poor people around the world are perpetuated by the poor of countries like ours because of the cost and availability of food that is organic and better for the workers. The idea of ‘voting with your dollars’ ignores income disparity; those who use their dollars the most cannot afford to ‘vote’ for better wages or a healthier environment. The same is the issue with clothes. Indeed, most any consumer item has this issue. Companies like Wendy’s are still balking at a one cent raise for the Farm Workers’ Union that picks the tomato crops for their products, denying them better care for themselves and a marginal difference in their income. Clothing companies will regularly relocate if the local population agitates too much for protections or increased wages. The reason companies can squeeze profits like this out of sweatshop labor is because the most people are able to buy them for the premium the company charges, paying cents on the dollar (if they pay at all) to their workers. Yet, the supposedly more ethical options, i.e. fair trade, come with their own problems. Who ensures these products and services are actually fair trade? Are they? Are the standards for this across the board or voluntary? Does the money put forth for these things actually help the intended cause, i.e. the environment? If we agree we cannot consume our way to a better life, we cannot expect to pay in this way for healthier forests or healthier people. The resources to get the job done are not there if this is the extent of our involvement. Žižek goes on to say:
We should not simply oppose a principled life dedicated to duty and enjoying our small pleasures. Let’s take today’s capitalism. We have, on the one hand, the demands on the stipulation on the capital, which push us towards profit-making, expansion, exploitation and destruction of nature, and, on the other hand, ecological demands. Let’s think about our prosperity and our own survival, let us take care of nature, and so on. In this opposition between ruthless pursuit of capitalist expansion and ecological awareness, duty, a strange, perverted duty, of course, duty is on the side of capitalism as many…analysts noted. Capitalism has a strange religious structure. It is propelled by this absolute demand: capital has to circulate, to reproduce itself, to expand, to multiply for itself, and for this goal, anything can be sacrificed, up to our lives, up to nature, and so on. Here, we have a strange, unconditional injunction. A true capitalist is a miser who is prepared to sacrifice anything for this perverted duty.
Rather than engage in perpetual desire or the excesses of capitalism as if it were a duty, one of animism and polytheism’s main challenges to the dominant paradigm are duty to the Holy Powers. Duty requires discipline and discernment to tell one’s duty from one’s distractions, and to follow through on that duty. Duty is often inconvenient, and can be painful. Rather than act as the true capitalist, who sacrifices of and from others for material gain, good questions to ask ourselves are: “What are we prepared to sacrifice for our duty to Them? What is that duty? How would They have us engage in it? How do we live best with the world around us, in respect for It/Her/Him/Them? How do we live in good Gebo with the Holy Powers?”
If, as Žižek puts forth, ‘a true capitalist is a miser who is prepared to sacrifice anything for this perverted duty’, then it is worth asking what we are prepared to do to deny the sacrifice of our world, our lives and our religions to the ever-hungering maw of capitalism. What can we do right now? What can we do in the future? What can we leave to future generations so they can grow well, and away from this perversion of duty, and of life? How best can we help future generations grow well in relationship with the Holy Powers, and in healthy communities that support them?
Animism and polytheist religions are radical in capitalist societies because they cannot merely go along with the capitalist narrative and remain authentic. Profit above all else cannot take place in authentically lived animist and polytheist life; to do so is to deny our own religions’ and traditions’ teachings on reciprocity and our place in the Worlds. It denies that the land spirits should have their own considerations met in regards to the use of Their bodies and spirits. Profit above all else requires we deny the sacred duties we have in regards to the Holy Powers. It requires we deny the sacredness of the land and all that comes from it in service to the expansion and retention of capital. The radicalism of animism and polytheism is that it requires us to deny the ‘true capitalist’, the miser, and those who serve them, and to live an engaged life with the Holy Powers. It requires we not to offer up in service to the perverted duty of capital and capitalism, but to do our sacred duties to the Holy Powers. To live an engaged animist and/or polytheist life is to give of, from and through ourselves for our Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and communities. It is to live in good Gebo with the Holy Powers, and with one another. It is to live with the Earth as a good guest. If we are to live in good Gebo with the Holy Powers then capitalism’s ideology is one we cannot support, and must deny wherever we are able.