Capitalism, Consensus, and Theistic Spirituality




The following programmatic theses have been written by members of the Burlington Greens as draft resolutions for the National Green Gathering to be held in Eugene, Oregon, on June 21-24, 1989. Based on such resolutions, or SPAKAs (Strategy and Policy Approaches in Key Areas), written by Greens around the United States, the gathering will formulate policy and strategy for the nationwide movement. For purposes of information and discussion, Green Perspectives presents them here as statements by two signatories of the Call for a Left Green Network in areas of concern to Greens both in this country and abroad.

Policy Statement #1: On Capitalism
by Murray Bookchin

Important as the emergence of a new ecological sensibility may be, the U.S. Greens must deal with the harsh material and economic conditions that often shape popular thinking and that directly affect the future of the planetary environment. Until recent times, every social form, including hierarchical and class societies, placed cultural and moral limits on the plundering of the planet. The Greeks, for all their shortcomings, at least emphasized a “golden mean”–nothing in excess. Medieval society professed to regard the accumulation of wealth, even of the ordinary things of life, as sinful, or at least as evidence of spiritual weakness. The ideal of living within distinct material limits and of “giving rather than receiving” remained an abiding one for Western humanity, even when it was often honored in the breach.

The most striking feature of modern society is that an economic system has emerged that advances the very opposite of traditional views on these issues–namely, a grow-or-die economy called capitalism. This system, which exists in a bureaucratic form in the so-called “socialist bloc” and in a corporate form in the explicitly capitalist bloc, is not only based on the private ownership of land, means of production, and large industrial facilities; it is based on commodity production–the production of goods intended exclusively for exchange in the marketplace–and on the accumulation of capital for purposes of expansion. It is a competitive economy, guided by the maxim “grow or die.” This maxim is an inherent part of its very law of life. Unless a producer of commodities expands, the enterprise will be taken over by a competitor who will, still further, continue the processes of growth and production for their own sake.

Good intentions and ideals have no bearing on the survival of a capitalist enterprise: the marketplace is impersonal, brutally competitive, and all-expansive. It removes all limits to growth that may have existed in the past and that are ideally advanced by so-called “steady-state” economists. There is a very simple way to be “moral” in the capitalist economy: namely, to commit economic suicide.

To dress the marketplace with moral platitudes, spiritual pieties, and “good vibes” about “ethical” capitalism as distinguished from “immoral” capitalism is to literally camouflage the very nature of capitalism as an anti-ecological society that must completely tear apart all natural ecosystems, render them more simple and inorganic, and inevitably destroy all complex life forms on the planet if it is permitted to exist. What is troubling about this mythology and language is that they attempt to come to terms with what “most Americans think”–to use a cliché to justify existing systems of property and legitimate so-called “benign” systems of commodity production and exchange. Myths of “using” money morally or profiting “creatively” serve as apologias for an inherently destructive system. Nor is it constructive to refer to this system with words like “industrial society” that focus on technology rather than on ecologically vicious social relations–indeed, social relations that began to emerge and play an increasingly important role even before the Industrial Revolution occurred.

The U.S. Greens take an unequivocal stand against the capitalist system in all its forms–state “socialist” in the East and “entrepreneurial” in the West. They call for the municipalization of the economy, not its “nationalization” or “collectivization”–the latter, a system that will pit cooperatives against cooperatives in a typical entrepreneurial relationship. They call for a confederal economy and society in which communities will be decentralized and freely give of their resources without the use of money, based on the maxim “From Each According to His or Her Ability, To Each According to His or Her Needs.”

Policy Statement #2: On Consensus
by Janet Biehl

The Green movement in the United States is committed to two goals that often conflict with each other. On the one hand, it is committed to a diversity of views among its members; on the other, it is committed to consensus by large groups of people who do not know each other. These two goals are often thrown in opposition to each other.

Small groups, in which people know each other and understand each other’s views, may be extremely appropriate for consensus. Many small groups come together precisely because they agree on certain fundamental issues. In these groups, consensus may be a de facto aspect of the decision-making process.

But in large groups of people who do not know each other, the ideal of consensus is simply that–an ideal. The fact is that there can rarely be “one mind” on all issues. The notion that there can be “one mind” in large groups is usually a fallacy, belied even by the Green commitment to valuing diversity. As the social ecology-deep ecology debate has shown, there in fact exists a diversity of approaches to the problem of how to bring about an ecological society.

In large groups, a commitment to consensus, while seemingly attractive, can be used to discourage independent, critical thinking by individuals. It lionizes “group wisdom” without acknowledging that the conscientious and principled opposition of a few who have the courage to stand up to a group decision is to be particularly valued. Indeed, that very independent thinking and that very courage should be cultivated, not discouraged, in an era when conflict is seen as a form of violence and argument is seen as “divisiveness.”

The history of the Green movement in the United States reveals that the use of consensus in large groups has too often been immobilizing. Consensus has given minorities the right to veto decisions made by the majority of a group. As a result, many Green meetings have been stymied by the fact that a few members oppose a decision with which the majority agree.

Nor is consensus necessarily in accordance with the ideal of radical, participatory democracy. For under consensus, once a group has taken a decision, all are in theory to participate in the execution of that decision. This means that under consensus, minorities are often deprived of the legitimate right to dissent–and they are deprived of the institutional structures that allow them that right to dissent. Historically under the consensus process, dissenting minorities have sometimes been subjected to intimidation by informal elites. When the right to dissent is denied, the suppression of the principled opposition of a minority may be the result.

Consensus, however grand its ideal, in reality often makes possible the tyranny of powerful informal cliques, even if a clique and its tyranny are unacknowledged by other members of the group. The history of alternative social movements, notably the Clamshell Alliance, demonstrates that consensus can become a catchword for the intimidation of those who disagree.

When dissent is denied, the achievement of consensus becomes empty–simply an exercise in ritual bonding (as Howard Hawkins has put it) perpetrated by the majority. In these cases, consensus represents a commitment to the unity of the group itself instead of a commitment to an understanding of the truth of a particular issue.

Disagreement is not a form of warfare, nor a form of violence. Argumentation is not a form of oppression. Truth and clarity reside in the interests of the oppressed, not in the interests of those in power. Attempts to stymie discussion only support the ruling order.

Dissent must therefore be encouraged, not discouraged. Only through a principled discussion of what is at stake in an issue can the truth be clarified. It is liberals–those who accept the system–who water down and obscure truths to platitudes with which everyone can agree and who seek consensus in the form of “peace.” In an age of accommodation like ours–as in all ages–it is liberals who would deny the importance of clarifying radical truths.

Majority rule is the democratic method of determining the will of the large group in decision-making. For majority rule protects the minority’s right to dissent, and majority rule exempts them from the obligation to carry out a group decision with which they disagree. In order for diversity of opinion to be valued, therefore, majority rule in large groups must be viewed as an acceptable process.

Policy Statement #3: On Theistic Spirituality
by Janet Biehl

Ecology, both as a science and as a politics, is committed to demystifying all conceptions of Nature and to valuing Nature in its own right. In ecological politics as in science, the deification of Nature as Supernature must be rejected as anti-naturalistic. In nature, there is not now, never was, and never will be a goddess–or a god–of any kind. The dualism of “spirit and matter” is not overcome by goddess religion but rather is perpetuated by it. Only a rejection of Supernature can support a truly naturalistic understanding of Nature.

The unity of means and ends must be upheld. Ecological politics cannot ask people to believe in a deity of nature, of whatever sex, for the instrumental purpose of bringing about an ecological society. Such an appeal cultivates gullibility and invites manipulation rather than autonomous thought. It does not educate people to take the hard-headed look at hierarchy and domination so necessary to bring about the destruction of hierarchy and domination.

A new ecological sensibility, involving a combination of feelings and reason, is essential. This may even go by the name of a secular “spirituality.” But committing a movement to the cultivation of myth, mysticism, mythopoesis, intuition, and the antirational in general, without at the same time valuing and cultivating critical rational thought, will more likely lead to an embrace of the present social order than to seeing through its many mystified blandishments.

Religion has traditionally served to sanctify the existing state of affairs. Its formulations may often be vague enough for social rebels to make use of them, but more often they lead to a quietistic search for personal ecstasy or salvation, or to the satisfaction of psychological needs through interpersonal communion.

Wilderness cults such as deep ecology and “feminist” religions that see women as more “ecological” than men may provide important personal satisfaction. But in the present society, where the personal is adulated and the political is endangered, gaining personal satisfaction often does not support an understanding of and commitment to the importance of political work. “The personal is political” must not be a catchword for the enervation of the political activity by personal considerations.

The transformation of the present society to an ecological society will not occur of its own simply by individuals preparing the way for a “paradigm shift” with practices of meditation and worship. Rather, it must be consciously fought for through a struggle against oppressive political, social, and economic structures by confrontational activism.

The goal of an “ecological society” modeled on the “goddess-worshipping” cultures of Neolithic Europe is atavistic. Neolithic cultures were brutal in their own right. They suppressed individuality in the name of custom, religion, and tradition. They organized society along biological lines of sex–as well as age–instead of along the lines of a commitment to freedom for all. Appeals to the Neolithic ignore the development of technologies that have freed all people–especially women–from drudgery and toil. They also ignore the longstanding tradition of social revolt that has emerged in the West over the course of millennia–including the leftist call for social, political, and economic revolution.

When an “unknowable” realm is posited, in whatever era, it invariably results that some are designated as more in touch with this “unknowable” realm than others. These people become priests or priestesses, even in goddess religion.

Ecological politics must be committed to the destruction of social hierarchy in all its forms. An early form of hierarchy was in fact priests and priestesses. A commitment to understanding that the domination of human by human preceded the idea of dominating nature–as social ecology maintains–includes an understanding of the early, crucial role that religious hierarchies played in legitimating the domination of human by human.

Judgments of right and wrong are not simply the oppressive manifestations of Judeo-Christian religion. Rather, they form the basis of all ethics and are essential to political practice. Political activists inherently judge certain social, economic, and political formations as wrong and inherently applaud struggles for an ecological society as right.

A rigorous adherence to the “immanence” of value needs no theistic crutches for support. Rather, the potential for reason, feelings, and sociopolitical resistance to structures of domination and hierarchy exists naturalistically in all human beings. Theism, whether devoted to a goddess or to a god, undermines this all-important capacity and tends to reduce the individual, in all of his or her uniqueness, independence, and sense of personal worth, to an obedient member of a congregation and ecological politics to group therapy.

Letter to the Editors

The following letter by Kym Lambert was written to Janet Biehl in response to her article “The Politics of Myth” (Green Perspectives #7), as well as in response to the Black Rose lecture she delivered at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 9, l989. For reasons of space, the lengthy letter has been excerpted here to include only issues that Biehl has raised in Green Perspectives.

The portions of the letter that have been omitted are those that mainly address Biehl’s criticisms of goddess-religion’s historical and anthropological views–criticisms that have appeared elsewhere. See “Goddess Mythology in Ecological Politics, ” New Politics (Winter l989) and the review of Starhawk’s Truth or Dare in Our Generation (Fall l988). To receive a copy of Kym Lambert’s complete letter, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Green Perspectives.

I am a Witch, that is a trained and initiated Priestess of Wicca. I am also a student of Ecofeminism at Goddard [College] and plan to get my M.A at the Institute for Social Ecology. The thing that drew me to Social Ecology was the idea “that the notion of dominating nature has its fundamental roots in the domination of human by human.” . . . As a Witch and a feminist, this would naturally appeal to me.

Now I find that my religion has again come under attack, from someone who claims to hold true that value. Perhaps you are unaware that Witches have been a persecuted minority for over two thousand years. Perhaps you did not realize that over nine million of us were burned, hung, crushed, raped, and tortured during the Inquisition. Perhaps you don’t know that several of us have lost our jobs, homes, children, and lives just in the past ten years. All because of our beliefs.

You state that we are going to destroy the rationality that is in the Ecology movement. Well, I counter with the fact that there is too much intellectual rationalization going on. Rationality can be used to twist around facts much more effectively than irrationality, in this society. What is wrong with striking a balance between rationality and intuition? After all, should we really be looking at the Earth from a left-brain, macho perspective all the time? Especially when one is coming from a feminist viewpoint. I also find this theory very ludicrous, considering that I have several Wiccan friends who are in very “rational” fields. And it has never prevented them from having an “irrational” (?) emotional experience. (I hate to get personal, but have you had an honest emotion lately?)

Your fear of us bringing hierarchy probably stems from Bookchin’s ignorance of tribal structure, where he has come to believe that Elders and Shamans created hierarchy (The Ecology of Freedom). This demonstrates crude ethnocentrism on both your parts. Neither a Priest/ess nor a Shaman has any power-over anyone in their coven or tribe, they are teachers and guides. We cannot impose our will on any (although we can work to prevent others from imposing their will upon us, this is why some of us are political).

You also have a gross misunderstanding of the use of myths. We (as political Pagans . . . ) use myths to bring us closer to an aspect of the Goddess that we need for strength. (For example: we may concentrate on Andreaste, the Celtic Goddess of victory, when we are about to do an action; the way Boudicca did when she fought the Romans.) Instead of it being a fantasy to replace reality, it is a way of touching that within ourselves that believes that we have the strength to make change. If we cannot believe that we have that power, then how can we create the necessary change? And Pagan myth is not used, by Pagans, to manipulate–after all manipulation is intrusion of Free Will.

You call us on the “bad research” deal, something that has created problems within the Pagan community. Yes there is a lot of poorly researched material out there. But this is true of most of the mainstream anthropological and historical texts as well, which is written from an ethnocentric analysis of “winners’ history.” We are dealing with a very “soft science” here, and the actual facts of any past people cannot ever be known on your purely rational level, as I am sure you would put down past life regression as well. . . .

You also seem to want to keep throwing the word “supernatural” at us. I, as a Witch, do not believe in the supernatural. There is nothing that is above Nature, the Goddess is Nature, in my belief. Supernature is an idea that was created by those in patriarchal religions (probably first used by the Romans) to justify their authority over Nature. It is not a part of our religion, it is rather a weapon against it. . . .

You said at the lecture that you did not want to deny anyone’s religious rights, only that we had to keep them out of the ecology movement. Yet, many of us do choose to work at political change within our religion, just as many Quakers, Catholic Priests and Nuns, and other religious people do (and I have worked with Buddhists, Quakers and Sisters in the antinuclear and the peace movements). Although I have met with feminists who have had some anti-Pagan sentiments, we have always worked together with only a little friction. I have never confronted anyone with the kind of hostility and bitterness that you have displayed, although I understand that it is not unheard of from Marxists.

I understand that you and/or others have felt coerced into circles. I apologize if this is true, but I hope you will understand that those who did that were obviously not Witches. We believe strongly that no one should ever be brought into a circle against their own Free Will. We may invite all, but each person’s feelings would have to be honored. Some who are very new to Paganism (especially those who are cross-overs from the New Age movement, which comes from a very different direction) do get overenthusiastic and get overbearing in their wish to share it with everyone. It’s like a new vegetarian, who believes that everyone will be happier if they gave up meat, after the newness wears off they’re not so bad.

Considering your statement of not wanting to deny our right of religious freedom, I am confused and offended that you state that the Goddess is definitely an illusion. Just because you do not believe in Her does not make Her an illusion, any more than my disbelief in Yahweh makes Him an illusion. If enough people believe in something to the extent that it affects how they live their life, then it is real (see the writings of Carl Jung on the collective unconscious). . . .

You say that because Goddess literature is written at a “sixth-grade level,” as you put it, that it is “easily digestible pabulum for popular consumption.” This sounds like you want to keep the ecology movement for “intellectuals” only, this ranks right up there with Abbey’s and other deep ecologists’ statements that we should let starvation and AIDS kill off as may people as they can, to keep the Earth safe for a select few that survive. Perhaps if more books on social ecology were written in a readable style, it would be a more viable movement. Or are you so wrapped up in your own control issues that you only want individuals that meet your pseudo-intellectual standards? . . .

Never Again the Burning!

Kym Lambert
Colebrook, New Hampshire

Janet Biehl responds:

How ironic that as I make a defense of reason, reminders of witch-persecution are thrown back at me. It was not reason that brought about the torture of witches during the Late Middle Ages or at any other time, any more than it was reason that brought about the mass murder of Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century witch torture had complex social, economic, and political causes; but one precondition for it was certainly the widespread superstition of the era and the lack of a clear distinction between the scientific and the religious, the rational and the irrational. Surely a contributor to ending it was the age’s partial success in finding criteria for what is true and what is not–through reason. As torture in general was increasingly rejected around the time of the Enlightenment–that much-maligned age of reason–the torture of witches also abruptly declined.

My purpose is not to isolate reason as it is commonly defined (as formal reason, separate from emotions and sensuality) and offer it as a panacea for our problems. I comprehend the limitations of formal logic, and I share social ecology’s exploration of a dialectical reason based on passion, the sensuous, and the will. I am quite simply defending this formal reason–which also has its place–against the massive cultural onslaught now being delivered against it (as a form of “control,” as Lambert puts it) by the New Age, by postmodernism, by the nationwide fascination with Buddhism and Taoism, by popular psychotherapeutic techniques, by the consumer culture that capitalism has created, by what Bookchin calls the counter-Enlightenment. Lambert’s view that “there is too much intellectual rationalization going on,” far from being radical, is actually quite hegemonic today. Her swipes at my personality–“bitterness,” “hostility,” alleged dearth of “honest emotions”–are typical of an era that is awash in psychotherapy and that deals with critics on the level of the personal, of feelings, more than ideas. The ignorance of many young people today is a national scandal–large proportions of college students today think that it was the Russians that the United States was fighting in World War II, and serious intellectual discussions are actually occurring that begin with examining the limitations of “objectivity” and end with denying that any objectivity at all is possible, arguing that history and science are “myths.”

In this situation, I defend the unpopular idea that we can indeed know some things for sure about history (that it was the Germans, not the Russians, whom the United States fought in World War II, that beliefs in supernature long preceded the ancient Romans, and that Boudicca most likely did not look to her goddess for therapy–a purely twentieth-century reading!). I defend the idea that we can indeed know some things for sure about anthropology (I refer to hierarchies of shamans in tribal cultures–for example in East Africa, according to Paul Radin–that helped chieftains consolidate power and were helped by them in turn to consolidate shamanistic hierarchies; to the early cities of Sumer that were organized around temple hierarchies, despite their now-glorified worship of goddesses). I defend the idea that we can indeed know some things with certainty about nature (that gravity is a real force; that atoms and molecules exist and that gods do not; that nature is evolutionary and was not created by a deity). I also defend the idea that some things are knowably true and that some things are knowably not true as an idea that is of great help to us in preventing massive outbursts of irrationality such as the torture of witches.

It may be that “If enough people believe in something to the extent that it affects how they live their life, then it is real.” But being “real” is not the same thing as being true. Truth is not what feels real to a certain number of people, nor can it be determined by public opinion polls. If it could, the view that women and blacks are inferior to white males would have to be called true–for this idea feels real to many men, indeed makes them feel quite powerful.

If worshipping a goddess makes people personally feel strong or is personally consoling to them, it is not my business. I did not say, as you allege, that I am trying to “keep them out of the ecology movement,” nor is that my view. I object to giving religion an integral place in a movement’s political philosophy, to saying that “the deepest sources of Green principles are spiritual.” It is that philosophy that I address, as well as the idea that the greatest gap in Green politics is the need for “sustainable religion.” Charlene Spretnak, the author of these views, is hardly a newcomer to goddess-worship, comparable to an “overbearing” “new vegetarian”; she has been writing on the subject for at least ten years.

What is my business is the problem with attempts to build a feminist or ecology movement on the idea that what is true for me is true for me, and what is true for you is true for you. My request for intellectual rigor in the foundations of a political movement is made with the expectation that it can be built on something besides such sand. If the ecology movement regards this request as putting me in the camp of Inquisition witch-torturers and Edward Abbey misanthropes, then I fear that sand is all that we shall have.¤