Friday, December 08, 2006
okay, so i lied. Magical critique of environmental/social/activist community
here's another something to read. it's from a druid, it's on activism. it's outside the box thinking. enjoy. thanks Jeronimo for sending it my way, and no i didn't mispell Jeronimo, J-man's name starts with a J!
John Michael Greer writes:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 analyze 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
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
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
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.
So those are my responses. I hope some of this turns out useful. Call
me or drop me an email any time if you want to talk about any of it.
With my best as always, John Michael Greer
(added bio): John Michael Greer is the author of eleven books and
many articles on magical philosophy and practice, including "Inside a
Magical Lodge" (Llewellyn, 1998), "The New Encyclopedia of the
Occult" (Llewellyn, 2003), "A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into
Polytheism" (ADF, 2005), and the forthcoming "Druidry: A Green Way of
Wisdom" (Weiser, 2006). An initiate in the Golden Dawn tradition, he
has also been active in the Druid community for many years; he
currently heads the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), holds
the highest level of initiation in the Order of Bards Ovates and
Druids (OBOD), and received OBOD's Mount Haemus award in 2003 for his
research into Druid history. He lives in Ashland, OR, with his wife
More information and a complete list of his book publications are
online at http://www.aoda.org/about/greerbio.htm
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