A few years ago, two Catholic priests, a humanist cleric, a Reformed cantor, a few others with various depths of Christian religious commitment, and a Witch got together on Cape Cod to spend one last summer together with an ill friend, who was an agnostic on a good day. Her house overlooked a salt marsh that gave way to a shallow cove with noticeable tides. It was a paragon to the idea conjured by the term “New England beach house,” down to the long piers over sand dunes and the classic smell of seashore and linens.
We all arrived throughout an early August day, and by 4 p.m. we had each had agreed not tot discuss religion, and stay the entire weekend no matter what happened. Our host had insisted, and delivered the command with the flair of Truman Capote in Murder by Death avec chapeau, no less. We should have known better. The truce of gentility lasted until the second course at dinner (lobster and clam bake for the interested, and prepared by a certain Witch).
For some reason, that very Witch became a microaggression target. It was something like, “Can I compliment you on a well-organized dinner, or will that be a problem because it was ‘organized?’” Ah, code; shade would be a better word (see Doren Corey in Paris is Burning for an explanation). Translation: “oh, the one that doesn’t like organized religion can still be organized”. It continued with, “what is unorganized religion, anyway, I wonder? What gets done there?”
First, there were glances, and no sooner was there a random, “let’s take a deep breath” than it was a free-for-all. I was accused of anarchist subversion of everything from state taxes (I don’t even live in Massachusetts) to the shellfish aquaculture problem (no, to this day I don’t know what that meant or if there is an actual problem, I’m sorry). Having apparently heretofore underestimated my powers over aquatic invertebrates, I also walked away with my anarchy apologist badge re-polished and an exceptionally entertained and well-fed host clapping excitedly while sucking heavily through laughter from the oxygen concentrator.
What I learned from that “conversation” is how difficult it is for many non-Pagans to grok that not being in an organization doesn’t mean that nothing gets done. The idea — even need — for hierarchy has been so thoroughly cultivated in our societies that suggesting its removal is deeply bewildering. We live so fully in a super-culture that runs on orders and power that a leaderless space is truly terrifying. Power, authority and ruling are all very tempting, even in other circles.
Part of it, I think, stems from an elaborate marketing campaign by the kyriarchy to undermine and remold the word “anarchy” into a word of fear. Leaderlessness isn’t really much of a problem in communities where trust and hospitality are the mechanisms for maintaining a social peace and getting things done. I’d go further and suggest that if the ideal of “perfect trust” is the core community value, then that society becomes a vast intentional community with little need for things like money or property rights. In fact, it sounds very much like living in religious orders and fulfilling the charges of great teachers like Buddha and Jesus.Our super-culture’s reality is so vastly different — and bluntly hypocritical — that leaderless spaces are fundamentally intolerable, so much so that they must be pathologized along with related issues such as consensus and consent. The super-culture demands leadership legally, socially, and corporately.
We are taught that leaders are needed. They are required for smooth social functioning. That they need to have the characteristics of dominance, aggression and protectiveness. We are taught that law promotes freedom through social order, which itself requires hierarchy, and that social order leads to peace. To suggest that law, peace, and freedom can be achieved without force upends the fragile egos of those in power.
We’ve also been taught that if anarchy rises, all sorts of mayhem will prevail from theft to murder. Anarchy is more than mere lawlessness, it is the pathway to degrade our existence into subsistence. The media uses the term for failed states, destruction of privacy, and the removal of all forms of protection offered but for the powerful. The kyriarchy has intimately confounded social violence with leaderlessness and anarchy to keep its hold on society. It propagates its own power by filling the space of intentional trust with fear. When each person — Pagan or otherwise — removes those hooks of fear, through education and community, they represent an infection to social thought raising the possibility of contagion, all too dangerous for those in power.
At its core, anarchy is simply honoring self-governance and voluntary association between people and groups. Yes, it evolves into more complex political and economic theories about stateless systems and labor-value problems, but its essence is that individuals are fundamentally and sufficiently competent to form, manage and respect their own affairs in a nonviolent way. People can be left to their own devices, and they will get things done from growing crops to repairing roads to solving the Riemann hypothesis. They won’t devolve into brutish clans prepared to attack each other as in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, because in anarchy, trust is the cantilever to greed and the remedy to fear.
Back to that dinner party, when I explained that our communities can get things done without the tools used in patriarchal systems including the need for leaders, it wasn’t met just with disbelief, it was met with ridicule. Suggesting that leadership does not require leaders —and certainly not patriarchal ones full of toxic masculinity — is fantastical, something out of Star Wars. Crazy stuff.
This is why we are a ridiculed; because we are a threat, and a great threat at that. It is not underestimated by those in power, from states to religions to corporations. We are collectively pathologized because labeling contagion is a first step to controlling it. While we are not all anarchists, Pagans press firmly against that social envelope of power. It is not that we are monolithic in political or economic thought, but rather our acts of questioning, learning and exposing that makes many of us transgressive. It is our confidence in hospitality and trust that makes untenable. Scarier still, we get things done without leaders.
Is anarchy an achievable system? We can debate that endlessly. I personally believe (or delude) myself to be a pragmatist, and so I believe we use the tools we have on hand — economic, political, even spiritual — to create the spaces we want. But that isn’t my point. The point is how we are perceived. The philosophers of anarchy helps us see the world differently, and we give ourselves permission to explore, respect and even embrace that vision. We even learn and apply those teachings from intentional communities to leaderless organizing. We are not afraid to question leaders, ideas, or canon. We are not the backing-down kind.
Collectively, we have pushed against millennia of oppression and persist even after we were thought extinct. Most dangerously, the thought-act of rejecting the social structures of power immunizes us from their control. We expose that there are other ways to live peacefully, not just with each other, but with nature and the world around us. We are not bound by dogma, religious or political, and we are not trapped by the language of exclusion, division or oppression.
In that sense, our collective Paganism is like the Yule solstice — a returning light — exposing power and hypocrisy, even as the sun and Saturn enter Capricorn. That certainly is brave and scary stuff, but stuff we can handle. We are not a perfect community, but we are indeed a counter-pole, and a blessed one.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.