Thin pale hands clutch a wand bound with a crystal and bundled herbs. The fingers of the practitioner are delicate, lithe, adorned with pewter and silver rings; a thing gossamer fringe from her sleeves or her dress drapes down, and she lights cones of incense in spaces prepared for them upon a painted-stone.
Magic seems to stream through the soft-lighting of the image, and we are left to wonder: Is she casting a spell? Invoking long-quiet spirits? Divining the threads of wyrd woven around a supplicant?
She’s selling a product on behalf of a corporation.
The images that I’m referencing appear on the marketing blog for Free People, which offers ‘curated’ products for sale within ‘The Spirituality Shop.’ For those unfamiliar with Free People, it’s the parent company of Urban Outfitters, a company renowned for their well-documented theft and appropriation of First Nations and individual-crafter art, as well unabashedly selling overtly racist products such as Ghettopoly and “Navajo” liquor flasks..
For 68 dollars, you can purchase their ‘cosmic stick,’ or for 28 dollars you can either purchase an assorted bundle of driftwood sticks or a ‘hand-tied’ smudge stick. To a serious spirit-worker, witch, or wizard, such products are laughable, and they would likely agree with the cynic or the atheist who’d ridicule the use of spirituality to sell a product.
But that presents a problem. Spirit-workers, witches, and other practioners often do sell things, spiritual services (readings, curse-breaking, channeling) and products (wands, enchanted candles, herbal tinctures) through which others find their needs met. The logic of the cynic or the atheist, then, is of no use to the Pagan engaging in such transactions, yet we’d still take issue with The Spirituality Shop.
I’m tempted to say, “Welcome to the Capitalist appropriation of Paganism,” but I’d be misleading you here. It’s quite common, as Pagans are also consumers, and, anyway, we have a horrible habit of appropriating others beliefs and systems, compiling them and selling them back to each other as our own.
But still, it seems…wrong, somehow, for a corporation to present items roughly associated with our beliefs, dressed up in spiritual language, for profit. Many of us sell our services to each other as readers and crafters, and Pagan festivals very often have large markets of items for sale. How is what “The Spirituality Shop” is doing any different?
It’s tempting to fall back upon a particularly modern analysis. Free People is an impersonal corporation only out for profit, rather than a local seller, someone we know, someone ‘in the community.’ And while local trade is certainly something we should strive for, I currently live in a city where the largest on-line retailer of Pagan items (and pretty much every other sort of item), Amazon, resides. Corporations can be local, too.
Nor is it enough to say ‘corporations are bad.‘ As an anti-Capitalist who has worked in both small local-businesses and for corporations (as a cook, retail clerk, receptionist and a couple of professions I’d rather not talk about), I can vouch that working for Corporations was better every single time. They might rape the earth and exploit the poor, but at least their checks never bounce.
But there are several problems with The Spirituality Shop and other commercial outfits selling items with a sacred veneer, shrouded in mystical language and evoking the trappings of magic and the divine. The thing is, these problems are much larger than mere appropriation of an alternative religion and its activities and products. Rather, the problems are integral to Capitalism itself, or, rather, how Capitalism trains us to look at the world and everything in it as ‘objects,’ divorced from both spirit and social relationships.
To understand this, we need to look at the magical practices of Capitalism itself.
Commodification–or how nature becomes ‘things’
A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties…. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.
Karl Marx, Capital
While many 18th and 19th century ‘Enlightenment’ writers were vociferous critics of religion and particularly those who made a living selling metaphysical objects and services to others (Voltaire was very scathing), one of them, Marx, specifically examined our relationship to products and services through a metaphysical lens.
Marx wrote extensively in alchemical terms about the way Capital and Labor crystallize into ‘value,’ much like chemicals and minerals ‘crystallize’ out of air or other materials in an alchemical apparatus.This value is an apparently magical property, added into the material realm through human activities (labor, mostly).
When a raw material like wool is still upon a sheep, it has no social value. This isn’t to say it isn’t valuable to the sheep, of course, but it has not yet entered into the abstraction of human social exchange except as a ‘potential’ to be used later. The process of shearing it from the sheep adds an extra social dimension to the wool as a ‘raw material,’ an object, a ‘thing.’
Now, human labor can be applied to that wool to turn it into other things, each further away from the sheep it came from. Carding, spinning and then weaving or knitting each add another layer of objective difference and distance from its original existence as a fuzzy covering on the skin of a sheep. Each of these abstractions adds ‘value’ (specifically, ‘use-value’) to the wool, which is why raw wool costs less than a woolen cloak.
If at any point along the way the wool is given to someone else in exchange for another thing (usually, money), it becomes a commodity, or an object of exchange between humans. This exchange transforms the item into something now alienated from all the other humans who worked it.
That alienation is essential to understanding pretty much everything about Capitalist society.
By removing any thing from the relations that formed it, the threads of community and meaning are severed in the very same way that a human traded as a ‘thing’ from Africa to the Americas was alienated from the world that she came from (and the communities and land which co-created her) and was now considered a commodity despite her very real existence as a human.
That is, in order to alienate or commodify someone or something, they must be made into objects, devoid of meaning.
Commodity Fetishism–the ‘religion of things’
Commodification occurs when an item is divorced from the social relation that produced it.
Turning something into a commodity strips it from relationship and meaning in order to be bought and sold. And there’s a second transformation, just as insidious, which occurs to the commodity. Its social value no longer matters to the seller or buyer, but a different sort of ‘value’ does–exchange-value.
The question is no longer ‘How much does this person mean to their family? or How useful is this table?’ but rather “How much can I earn from this slave? Or how much can I sell this antique for?
And on the other side, the buyers now ask themselves, “Is this a fair price for a kitchen table?’ or, horrifically, “How many slaves can I afford to buy?”
Those questions comprise “exchange-value,’ and there are several new social interactions creating that value. This is where “markets’ come in: the desire of a merchant to profit as highly as possible from an item and the desire of a buyer to pay as little as possible for it. “Supply and demand” comes into play, mostly on the seller’s side, because if there are a hundred people selling coats and only one person buying, each seller is limited on the profit they can make.
It’s in the best interest of a seller to create artificial scarcity, and we should note that many modern famines in Africa and India have actually been a result of sellers purposefully limiting their stock, rather than natural causes (see Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved, among others).
All these relationships are again divorced or alienated from the humans who created the items, except in the cases of individual crafters directly selling their crafts. Walmart is full of alienated objects. A Saturday market? Not as much.
From a tree which has value-in-itself to a table bought at a furniture store is a long chain of humans who have worked the wood in some way or another. But, in most cases, you can no longer meet them. In fact, not being able to meet the communities of people who created an item is how companies like Apple are able to sell you phones made by people in horrific conditions — You’ll never meet them; you’ll never see their misery. So you’re decision to buy a smartphone is cleansed of questions of morality and ethics.
There’s something uncomfortable about buying alienated products though. Consider the difference between a meal cooked by your family and a meal purchased at a fast-food restaurant. It’s unlikely you know the minimum-wage worker who assembled your meal in her grease-smeared uniform. You have no relationship with her and, more than likely, she’s not considered part of your community. The communal and social relations of a meal are stripped-out of a drive-through burger or a factory-processed microwave ‘dinner.’ Not only are we alienated from the people who created it, we are alienated from the meal itself.
But we (or, many of us, I guess) eat such things anyway–and pay money to do so–despite that alienation. Those items have ‘value’ (because we pay for them and consume them), but that value is a sort of chicanery. The thing-itself has value again, or at least we believe it to have value inherent in the thing itself.
How much is a coat ‘worth?” An iPhone? A house? We assign a number to that item; a number of dollars or pounds or pesos, abstracting the thing one final time before it’s finally in our possession. That final abstraction is translated into the ultimate fetishized commodity, money, a thing completely worthless except for the potential it signifies.
When a thing is severed from the community who created it (humans and non-humans), it loses its ‘meaning’ (that is, socially-constructed value) and is an abstract ‘thing’ alienated from the world. In order for it to have meaning again, another magical process must occur. We usually call this ‘advertising.’
I’m loathe to admit this, but there’s some incredible Bardic magic in Capitalism. The fact that every reader of this essay can immediately conjure in their head what the Coca Cola logo looks like is a pure act of sorcery. Delve a little deeper and you can also likely evoke the taste of the stuff and might find yourself getting a bit thirsty, even if you make a practice not to drink it.
This is created meaning attached to an alienated object. It’s unlikely you’ve met many of the people who work in the factories where it’s created, and even its actual contents are hidden from public knowledge. What it’s even made of is a mystery.
Bards and witches can incite desire, fear, and bodily reactions in others, and enchanters can imbue material objects with abilities foreign to the item itself; so, too, does the advertiser.
In fact, someone must imbue commodities with new social meaning, otherwise Capitalism cannot exist.
The alienation of an object from the social relations that created it–and the horrific state of those conditions–are both unbearable to the mind. Alienation from production allows us to ignore slave labor and oppressive working conditions that create the food we eat, and those ignored realities are replaced with pastoral scenes of rolling fields and smiling farmers. Over enough time we stop questioning, but only as long as the charade is kept up and no one challenges us to think too much about who makes these things.
Therefore we don’t empathize with the poorly-paid workers who pick our coffee beans or sew our t-shirts. Instead, at most, we interact with the barista who pours are drink or the salesperson who rings up our purchase. We don’t empathize with the workers because they’re obscured from us, both by alienation and by advertising. This is also how we ignore the destruction of the earth by Capitalism–we don’t see it.
In fact, a lot of advertizement now involves invoking feelings of community, of naturalism particularly to help ease the pain of that alienation from each other and the earth caused by Capitalism. Worse, Capitalist ventures directly harming the earth have become ‘greenwashed.’ BP (once called British Petroleum) uses a green sun-flower for a logo, and automobiles with higher gas efficiency are referred to as ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly,’ as if those cars were going around planting trees.
Belief as a Product
Let’s return now to The Spirituality Shop.
Besides the sheer audacity of selling pieces of driftwood (freely found at almost any body of water), the fine folks who will sell you racist board games are engaging in the same alienation and commodification of objects as any other Capitalist merchant. But for Pagans, the aesthetic they employ should give us serious pause.
The language and photography in the advertising blog for The Spirituality Shop invokes precisely the connection to more ancient, non-Capitalist forms that many of us cherish about Pagan belief and practice. A connection to trees, to stones, to things like driftwood and the moon are all vital aspects of the Animist, Naturalist, and Pantheist religions within modern Paganism, particularly in our efforts to re-connect with the earth and its inhabitants–including other humans.
That is, Paganism is, if anything, anti-thetical to Alienation and Commodification. The moment a part of the Natural world becomes a mere ‘thing’ or an ‘object,’ its spirit, its being, its inherent worth and magic is ignored or even profaned. Alienation from forests is what allow us to cut them down callously, alienation from others is what allows us to make them slaves or sexual objects.
And it’s the sorcery used to help maintain that alienation which we, as witches, druids, spirit-workers, mages and priests must learn to fight.
When something becomes a commodity, it is stripped of its meaning, its spirit. We must fight off cynical uses of our beliefs to sell products, both from outside Paganism and from within. Value and worth are social creations, formed through social relationships, and nothing destroys social relationships like alienation.
Capitalism thrives on both greed and gluttony, excesses which destroy small communities but are difficult to redress in large ones. Alienation between the producer and the buyer is easier to create when our commerce isn’t personal and embodied; when you don’t meet the person who made your food or the person who’ll eat it.
And most of all, we should be wary of go-betweens, the enterprising sorts who offer to help us make money from our spiritual activities. It’s precisely at that point which alienation occurs, when driftwood collected on a beach becomes an ‘object,’ and the belief which creates a wand becomes a mere marketing ploy.
Relationship–or how sticks become wands
“Value” is a form of meaning that we attach to an item according to social relationships to it, whether those be use-value or exchange-value. But both of those meanings derive from relationship, both to the thing itself and to the beings involved in creating it.
Most magic is also relational. A spirit-worker, a channeler, a priest, a druid, and a witch all cultivate relationships with other beings (be they plants, rocks, spirits, or gods). To create a wand as a druid, for instance, I did not buy a stick from The Spirituality Shop or Amazon.com; I cultivated a relationship with trees (Alder, specifically) as well as gods and spirits related to Alder.
This isn’t to say I couldn’t have bought a wand, or had one created for me. In fact, my altar was created by someone else and gifted to me. I did not craft it, nor did I ever meet the people who’d cut down the trees to turn it into wood, nor those who made it into a bench. But the relationship of the person who made it an altar before I was given it remains; if anything, it’s her skill and her relationship to the god she made it for which imbued it with a rather profound magic in itself.
And here we have the final problem with The Spirituality Shop. We have no relationship with the creators of those items, nor likely did those creators have much relationship with the natural world. Only through the magic of advertising, the evocative chicanery and glamor of their imagery, might we imagine some ‘value’ in those items past their cost.
Thus, too, the problematic nature of even some Pagan ‘products’ such as Sabbat Box. We should be wary of attempts to sell us items evoking ‘Pagan Community’ and the imagery of magic, because this is the same ploy used to sell items devoid of meaning.
Magic might have a price, but relationship cannot be bought or sold. It’s the older truth behind the alienation between people and objects, the reason so many non-Capitalist peoples were communal and non-destructive to the environment in which they lived. Their connection to Nature and each other was relationship, which is the truest magic of all.
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.