If political orientations look more like a torus than a spectrum, then I’m directly across the doughnut hole from centrism, and a touch to the left. But I don’t call myself a leftist anymore – nor “progressive” or “liberal” – and here’s why.
In his book After Progress, John Michael Greer outlines a position that I was introduced to by John Gray in Straw Dogs: that materialist humanism peddles a story of human destiny that looks a hell of a lot like that of Christianity and other world-denying religions. Namely, that it is a salvation doctrine: a promissory narrative that outlines how humankind is destined for “bigger” and/or “better”, that some event or chain thereof in the future will emancipate us from mortal suffering, and all will be well thereafter. But until then, the struggle against evil is paramount, and this evil has the power to thwart us in our race towards this bright and shining future glory where we will be one with God/each other/all knowledge/the universe.
Of course it does. Theistic religions the world over make similar promises, as do what John Michael Greer calls civil religions: religions not of Gods and spirits and otherworlds, but religions of states and wars and material knowledge and flesh and blood leaders. Marxism is one civil religion, Nazism is another, as well as scientism, transhumanism, free market capitalism, and so on. Marxism is a civil religion founded on the words of the prophet Karl Marx, who defined a set of evils in the world that need to be overcome before his followers can achieve the worker’s paradise. Nazism is a civil religion founded on the words of the prophet Adolf Hitler, who defined a set of evils in the world that need to be overcome before his followers can achieve the Aryan paradise. Scientism is a civil religion founded on the words of the prophets of science, who defined a set of evils in society that need to be overcome before their followers can reach paradise through complete knowledge of the material world. Transhumanism is a civil religion founded on the words of several prophets, the foremost of them being Ray Kurzweil, who defined a set of evils in the world that need to be overcome before their followers can reach paradise through transcending embodied existence. Free market capitalism is a civil religion founded on the words of the prophet Adam Smith, who defined a set of evils in the world that need to be overcome before his followers can achieve paradise through profit. And so on. And so forth.
If leftism was founded on Marxism, then leftism was also founded on the doctrine of workers’ salvation. Contemporary leftism has been thoroughly post-modernized though, and is no longer about class (in fact, class is practically absent from most leftist critique nowadays), but it has far from abandoned the salvation narrative – it’s just been shifted to the shoulders of other entangled ideologies.
How many times have you heard that wind farms will save the environment? That the cure for cancer or aging is right around the corner? That social media is making the world a better place for the impoverished and mentally ill? That AI will… well, do whatever wonderful, utopian thing that AI is promised to do this week?
All of those things fall under the umbrella of techno-optimism, a cornerstone of most modern civil religions. Leftism has toed the techno-optimist line since Marx, actually – the man had no meaningful critique of industrial civilization and was by all accounts a cornucopian, a luxury we’ve long since been able to afford – but instead of workers’ salvation, leftism tends to unwittingly do the work of many a CEO when it proselytizes about the role technology (and by extension, popular culture) has to play in putting an end to human misery. Though the gadget-of-the-week or TV show protagonist du jour may change, the song stays the same. With enough peaceful demonstrations, movies about minority super heroes, solar panels, grant money, and scientific literacy among the otherwise irrational masses, suffering and inequality could be a thing of yesteryear. The leftist paradise is just around the corner! All we have to do is open our hearts and stop giving Oscars to white people!
What does this have to do with leftist polytheists? A lot. A short detour first, though.
I am an anti-civ, anti-humanist anarchist. My opinions and personal history make it a pointless endeavor to try and pigeonhole myself any more than that. Suffice to say, I’ve noticed that Marxist anarchists hate us. And if they don’t, then they are highly suspicious of us despite the fact that we pose less of a threat to them than they pose to society at large. I’ve seen calls to murder or commit violence against people who would try to sabotage technological infrastructure like the grid, and many openly disavow the likes of Ted Kaczynski even though they would have flocked to his aid had he targeted bankers instead tech firms. In talking with other anarchists, though, I realized that their fears are 100% about where our allegiances lie – that is, our loyalty to both the human and non-human. Which is interesting, because capitalists and statists often have similar reservations about traditional anarchists – that their loyalties lie too far outside of an even narrower sphere of values that they find inextricably human.
The important takeaway for me was the hostility to us because of our dual loyalties, though. And from a secular, materialist standpoint, where there is no meaningful intelligence outside of the human mind, or at least no intelligence worth supporting at the cost of human intelligence, of course that must be terrifying. Like a longtime friend who’s paranoid that you’ll stop talking to them thanks to a new beau, acknowledging someone else’s differing priorities takes, well, maturity. And setting aside your own ego. But we’re not very good at it. It’s the reason we profile loners as dangerous and equate “anti-social disorders” with the childhood behavior of serial killers.
And it doesn’t help that leftism has historically seen itself being opposed to religion in addition to business. In a much-loved quote by 17th-century French philosopher and critic Denis Diderot:
Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.
So where does that leave us? Well, that leaves a lot of us with implicit, though sometimes unwitting, beliefs in secular salvation doctrines and trying to shoehorn our religions into serving that narrative. To me, this is an unflattering weakness of Western civ in general, and modern approaches to polytheism in particular. In my comments on Dver’s recent response to John Halstead, I noted that many of us still seem to take a materialist approach to our religions – though maybe not our Gods – in the same way that Gordon White in Star.Ships notes that modern archaeology approaches ancient religions. There’s a hesitance to acknowledge the Gods on their terms, especially among the loudest leftists. Because when we do, we are often confronted with images and ideas about Them that are sometimes very uncomfortable to entertain. Images and ideas that sometimes don’t give one whit about political correctness. And I think the leftists are becoming worried about this, because it brings up the old “ignorant or evil” paradox that worldviews which feature salvation doctrines often have to find themselves contending with in a way that others don’t.
The Ignorant or Evil paradox (that’s not its official name, nor is it even an official paradox, but it’s a useful thought experiment) posits that if there is suffering in the world and someone (mortal or not, as in our case here) does nothing about it, it can be only because of one of two reasons: this individual is either ignorant of the suffering and therefore sees nothing to rectify, or they endorse the suffering and are therefore evil, as does someone who directly benefits from the suffering (sadism), or indirectly benefits (the citizens of the fictional city of Omelas).
Personally, I believe this is a false dilemma (and I’m sure a number of other “apolitical” polytheists feel similarly), but it would seem that a few of the radical leftists want to hold the Gods up to this sort of scrutiny and catch Them in a “gotcha”, and sort out the “ignorant” ones from the “evil” ones. I’ve seen this at work among the tumblr polytheist crowd already. I once saw someone trying to start a literal movement to stop people from worshiping Zeus because His myths paint Him as a rapist and a tyrant. There are many similar views espoused by people who are uncomfortable with Odin because of His history violating consent. There are people out there literally trying to call out Gods for Their bad behavior. As though they can be shunned from polytheism!
Looking at the Gods this way only makes sense if you’re approaching Them from a standpoint that values the humanist project of salvation from suffering foremost, and that They can only ever be subservient to that. That Gods who are ambivalent about that project, or outright antiethical to it, are fundamentally untrustworthy, or in John Halstead’s words, lacking “virtue” and not worthy of worship.
That makes about as much sense as calling for the cessation of worship of Jotuns because they threaten man’s survival and ego – oh wait.
Rhyd once made the mistake of conflating traditionalism with fascism, in the same way that anti-civ thought and primitivists have been conflated with fascism for daring to value wilderness more than electricity. We are scary to the disciples of secular salvation. Whether we worship Gods, or don’t get vaccinated, or spike trees and destroy GM crops, we are terrifying. Unpredictable. Ready to throw our fellow humans under the bus at the slightest provocation, and spoil everyone’s shot at whatever version of eternal life is in vogue this decade. Wow, we sound pretty terrible, don’t we?
And lordy the ending to this post is going to sound unbearably similar to the ending I recently wrote to a crack Neon Genesis Evangelion fanfiction. But the fact of the matter is that we, as a people, never had control. We will never have control. We will never end suffering (never come close to it!), we will never be saved, and that is our lot. In many myths, the Gods made us to worship Them, and if we don’t, then we always find something else to worship. If my loyalty to something outside of our wonderful, horrible, frustrating, selves scares you, then… that’s your problem.
Is an earthquake ignorant or evil?
You’re asking the wrong question.
Yes, I still value G&R. They’re saying things few other people are saying, and most importantly, they’re saying them coherently. I don’t agree with half of what gets put up there, but do I really have to like something to see the value in it? Rhyd and the others are ruffling feathers, and I dig that. My Gods dig that. (They’re not tricksters, but the Twins did try to sabotage the march of civilization once and paid for it dearly.) But I will not hesitate to critique when I see fit.