Column: Alchemical Capitalism

There is a dark magic within Capitalism, rarely spoken of and often missed, by both Pagans and materialists alike. This is not mere fairy tale nor conspiracy, and I suspect we miss it because we’ve set up boundaries between the spiritual and the physical; between the observations of theorists and the wisdom of occultists. And I do not mean the pablum published as “wealth magic,” which is too often re-marketed prosperity magic.

Usury and Wyrd

493px-Die_Nornen_Urd,_Werdanda,_Skuld,_unter_der_Welteiche_Yggdrasil_by_Ludwig_Burger

“Die Nornen Urd, Werdanda, Skuld, unter der Welteiche Yggdrasil” by Ludwig Burger [Public Domain]

Most know the history of banking in Europe to some degree, that the Catholic Church forbade the taking of interest between Christians. However prohibitions against taking interest started earlier with the Greeks–both Plato and Aristotle were opposed to it, and it was likewise forbidden in the Torah. All three of the monotheisms have, at some point or another, forbidden charging interest on loans.

Several reasons existed for this prohibition. But one of the most intriguing for a Pagan who is familiar with magical theory is that of the Catholic Church because it mimicked an aspect of God. The God of the Christians was said to have created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo), rather than reformulating creation from stuff which already existed. That is, he was the founding principle of creation, existent before all things were created and therefore the creator of everything which exists.

The Council of Nicaea banned usury among clergy, and it did not take long for this to extend to all Christians. Those who lent money at interest were forbidden the sacraments (transubstantiated bread and wine, likewise, a power only belonging to God through his priests.)

Money was still lent at interest, mostly by the Jews. Several historians have convincingly shown that Jews did not become money-lenders out of pleasure or greed, but because it was one of the few roles allowed to them within Catholic kingdoms.(Jews in the Caliphates and other Muslim states had more economic freedom and thus didn’t follow the same paths as European Jewish communities). That is, it was all that was left them, a dark role too horrible to make one a good Christian.

Interest on debt does not just create an excess for the lender, it invokes a shadow upon the borrower, a vampiric drain upon her or his life. The lender now has power over the person, who must come up with more than what they had. Neither in alchemical theory nor in physics is such a thing actually possible: nothing is created from nothing, only transmuted from one thing or form into another.

This shadow, this debt, should be familiar to Heathens particularly. It is a manipulation of the borrower’s Wyrd, the shadow of Skuld. Fate is respun; the future diminished. But it is the same bargain of Faust, borrowing against a future that now cannot manifest, offering soul to the darkness in return for a little more life.

The borrower knows she will never have enough. After juggled debt and more borrowing, the time is due; the rent unpaid; the car repossessed.To survive debt, she must take from others, profit from others needs. Usury is a rip in the social fabric, breeding the darkness of desperation, a spiral of displaced misfortune.

Enchantment and Money

Magicians, witches, priests and alchemists imbue physical items with esoteric qualities. Candles, stones, wands, potions—we combine some degree of material (wax, stones, herbs) and measurable aspects (candles burn, potions contain herbal or other tinctures) with the immaterial (protection, healing, curses.)

But where does the magic in a talisman reside? For some, and for some things, perhaps the etheric quality is only in the mind, a soul-resonance between the enchanted item and the enchanter. For others, and for other things, the magic is within the item itself, overlaid, woven, sealed within stone, wax, or wood. Some dare only suspect intent and the symbolic, others think only of the external. Most, I suspect, think on both.

I craft a magic candle to warm the hearth. Wax, awakened Damiana and Vetiver. Blessing of Brighid, light of moon, focus of will. I imbue and invest, coax and request, and then gift it to the hands of another. The candle is enchanted. It is a pillar of forged wax and herbs and also something else. Magic inhabits the physical, woven from meaning.

The candle is a symbol of a warmed hearth, but is nothing until it is burned. The candle is also a physical thing imbued with meaning. Either way, and both ways, it burns the same, to the same effect. The enchantment may derive from the alignment of ambient celestial or earthly energies, sometimes from spiritual co-habitation or blessings, and sometimes from mere intent of the enchanter.

But in all cases, one might say that the enchanter is imbuing the item with some added or distilled quality. We can state that the item itself, at least on some level of understanding, has become something else, or is “also” something else. That is, the candle is not “just” a candle, but is an “enchanted” candle. It functions no longer just as a candle, but as a candle with added meaning. Or, to borrow from the Marxists, there is some added quality or value in the candle.

This foray into magical theory is necessary to understand something so profound and also yet apparently invisible about the most everyday sort of magic in which we engage; indeed, perhaps, the only magic most people ever encounter: money.

Money is a kind of magic. Faces printed on round pieces of metal and thick fabric paper are mere material. The metal composing them is hardly rare, the paper not particularly beautiful. But it’s enchanted, and it operates both on the symbolic and the physical. In both ways, it is said to have value. We can call a hundred-dollar bill mere paper, but we certainly still don’t throw it away. It is imbued with meaning and value, and not just to ourselves, but to others as well. That is, its value is not just in our head, it’s in all of our heads.

To some degree, this aspect of money mirrors what the Naturalists and Archetypalists believe. Magic is an aspect of psychological, unconscious processes. Money is imbued with value and apparent spirit but is mere matter overlayed with meaning.

We should remember, though, what money can do physically. It is no mere thought-form. I hand you five dollars; you give me something, an expensive coffee perhaps or two city-bus tickets. The money compels the actions—without it, you will not give me a coffee, unless you like me.

Commodity Fetishism and Symbolic Enchantment

Karl Marx described the process by which we imbue meaning into money as “commodity fetishism.” Noting the similarities between how Capitalists in Europe appeared to do the same thing with money as non-Capitalist peoples did with religious items, Marx suspected that we treat physical objects as more-than-physical, endowed with qualities, meaning, and “value” that are not intrinsic to the item itself.

I shall restate this. We treat money as if it were enchanted. Like Animists recognizing the spirit-in-nature, money functions for us on an unseen realm, embodied with a quality invisible but nonetheless quite powerful.

We sense this invisible quality, this enchanted value, both in its potential and its resolution. To accumulate a lot of money is to accumulate a corresponding amount of “wealth.” I am quite wealthy if I have a million dollars, though I cannot eat them and be nourished. Still, within that one million is the promise of more than I’d dare eat.

Money is a matter of faith. I believe that others will want my money, I trust that my money will compel them to give me what I want. Above us all are the governments who print the money, sustaining this faith, though they do not “create” it, nor enchant it. We enchant it. We collect and imbue the paper upon which money is printed with “value,” as also abstract ciphers which represent amounts of that money deposited in banks.

That value is not only intrinsic. We imbue the paper with meaning and value, and as long as we use it and respond to it, the enchantment holds. But it isn’t just our enchantment. We cannot imbue it with more value than the paper allows, and that value diminishes always, manipulated by the priesthoods of finance. Each year, the enchantment fades a bit, and we must have more. What sufficed before is now no longer enough. Each year we toil harder as its magic slips through our hands.

The Alchemy of Labor

Alchemist-small

“The Alchemist” by Pieter Bruegel (Brueghel) the Elder [Public Domain]

Wheat is a sort of grass. It grows tall stalks with coarse and difficult-to-digest seedheads which are quite uncomfortable to eat raw. Unworked, without human intervention, wheat is just wheat and quite useless to us.

But separated from the rest of the plant and then ground, it becomes something. Flour, combined with water, salt, and yeast makes bread, something which is both edible and often times delicious. Each time the wheat is changed, transformed and combined, it becomes something else, something with more value. And it is by our hands that this happens, the alchemy of work.

A bag of flour requires work to be eaten, but a loaf of bread requires less work. That is, wheat flour contains less labor than a loaf of bread. Moreover, a sandwich made with bread and other things contains even more work and is thus “worth” more (that is, it costs more) than its component parts.

Why? Because a human worked it on your behalf.

Each time a human works an item, they imbue the item with their labor; they’ve transmuted the item, or enchanted it. It still bears the original ingredients (just as a potion contains all the original herbs and extracts), but it is no longer just those things. It is something altogether different, and rarely can be returned to its original state. Some items are more enchanted than others. Artisan bread contains more human labor than factory-produced white bread.

Human labor is an alchemical transformation of something into another thing. It imbues each transformation with its own qualities. Unlike money, the enchantment is intrinsic to the item itself, not merely on the symbolic realm. Wheat is barely edible off the stalk; it must be imbued with human labor to function as food.

The Enchainment of Work

Capitalism is this: a person with money compels others to transmute things on his behalf, always (if he is a good Capitalist) for less than the transmutation cost the worker. That is, the goal of a Capitalist is to accumulate as much money as possible through the use of other people’s labor, selling their magic for more than he pays them.

A Capitalist starts with money, builds a factory, a shop, or a restaurant, and employs people to work raw materials into more complicated things. We always get less than what others are willing to pay for the product of our work. We enchant things for him by changing one thing into another. We give not just our physical labor, but our very creative force to him (at a computer, at a cash register, in a kitchen, or on a factory floor), while he does not need to expend his own. He harnesses our will and intention and innate, human magic. And, we always get less in return, while he gets more from this magical system into which he never contributes.

Why do we settle for this?

We are always in debt. The shadow of usury plagues us. We have no land, no wealth. We sustain the enchantment of money, but it is not we who control the enchantment. Without us the Capitalist can only transmute as much as any other person. He needs us so that he can have more to avoid the shadow.

He and the usurer are in agreement. Together they hoard and own all the land, all the factories and shops, the restaurants and work-sites, and all the enchantment of our work.

He accumulates potential in the form of money with which he purchases the results of human labor. We are always in debt, always with less than we started, with less potential each day as we grow older, more tired, less attractive, and frail. What we can purchase in return for all our lifeblood will never equal how much of it we spilled out upon the altars of Work, frightened servants of dark would-be gods who cannot, nor would not, restore to us our shortening days.