Poverty of Body
The virtues of the poor may be readily admitted, and are much to be regretted. We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so.
–Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
I was recently in a discussion regarding Compassion, within a class addressing the difficulties one incurs upon becoming ‘public,’ considered, by no necessary fault of your own, a ‘leader.’ The question posed was rather simple–“what challenges most your Compassion?” and I laughed, as I’d been thinking about this matter for weeks.
“Holding the hands of middle-class people, coddling them, softening my words and critiques in order to ease them oh-so-gently into an understanding that the homeless person screaming profanities at them is suffering from the same system that makes them middle-class.”
Do forgive me here–there’s a bit of anger in those words, but not nearly the seething rage warranted in such discussions. In fact, that’s me being really polite about how I’ve felt lately, trying to talk to Pagans about Capitalism.
I’m stealing a bit of time from work as I write this, work where I ‘counsel’ people who’ve been homeless for more years than I’ve been an adult, people suffering from mental-illness and chemical dependency and worse, years of becoming socialized as less-than-human in societies which refuse to look at their own shit.
I’m sometimes tempted to ask some of them what they think about Capitalism or money-in-religion or whether pouring money into legislative campaigns to protect the environment is the best way to stop Climate Change, but this is outside of my job description and anyway, I wouldn’t be able to quote them.
The question I’d love to ask most though right now, the question burning on my lips that I think they’d be most able to answer is inspired by a post I saw today. That question? Would a material change or a spiritual change better improve your circumstances and your life on this earth?
Years on the street rather damaged these folk; lack of resources, no housing, long months and years without healthy food and access to medical care, unstable social groups, vulnerability to disease, rape, exploitation, rough cops and asshole business owners would probably skew their answers.
Similarly, though–what about those living in favelas and ghettos and shanty-towns across the world? I wonder which they might favor; spiritual transformation as the way to save the world, or maybe a little more to eat?
I’d prefer not to speak for the poor, as my income is about 30 times what an average Haitian makes per year. They make about $800, this year I’ll make about $25,000.
That number, by the way, is something we don’t talk much about. In America particularly, the income of others is a verboten topic. It’s impolite to talk about how much you make, and definitely impolite to ask someone how much they make. If you’re on the upper scales of income, it might cause envy or competition amongst your friends who make less. If you’re on the lower end, it becomes an embarrassment.
But there it is. $25,000 before taxes. 40% of the ‘median income’ of Seattle, where rents for one-bedrooms start at about $1000 (average price in my neighborhood is $1500–needless to say, I don’t live alone).
Last year, by the way, I made about half of this, including the donations I received through my blog and from people who helped me attend last year’s Polytheist Leadership Conference and my pilgrimage to Newgrange. (Thank you all, again).
I confess my income here for a couple of reasons. One, it’s quite relieving to admit it in a public forum. When you earn less than many of your friends and colleagues, you sort of do a lot of pretending that you can afford stuff because it’s expected of you.
Two, some people think I’m poorer than I am–street punks particularly mistake me often for ‘one of them.’ Probably because I wear torn cloths (I can’t afford to own more than a couple of sets of clothing), talk like them (it’s a bourgeois rule that we shouldn’t say ‘fuck), and hell, I talk to them like they’re human, because they are. I’m not afraid of them, I hang out with them, and hell–I used to sleep out there with them.
Another thing you should know about me is that I grew up in poverty.
Wait, though–many of us say that, because wealth often appears relative. My friends who make $50,000 a year feel poor in Seattle (which should make me ‘twice-as-poor’, but it doesn’t work that way), so it’s better to explain the circumstances of my upbringing rather than just say ‘I was poor.’
I was born in the foothills of Appalachia in south-east Ohio. I mentioned this elsewhere–we lived 6 miles away from a leaking nuclear power plant which caused both my papaw (grandfather) and uncle to die of massive brain tumors. We lived in a draughty A-frame house owned by a relative with an open sewer. We had a van on cinder-blocks which we used as a storage shed. My father had no work most of the time; he sometimes siphoned gas out of other people’s cars in order to go look for work or drive the 30 miles ‘into town’ for our once-a-month grocery store trip with paper-food stamps. Most of our food, however, got delivered by a truck once a week, brown non-descript boxes of ‘government cheese’ and white boxes of powdered-milk and bags of enriched rice.
That’s how we ate. We were basically vegetarian except at the first of the month when we had discounted ground-beef or when someone poached a deer or a wild turkey.
In the winter, we burned wood that my father cut down off of his mother’s land when he could afford the gasoline for the chainsaw. But much of that land had already been stripped and she didn’t want us cutting down all the trees (who could blame her), so we applied for heating assistance for the state. Usually they brought wood; two years they brought coal.
Those years were horrible, because coal leaves everything in your house black, and isn’t supposed to be burned in a wood-stove anyway, you and your little sisters and your developmentally-disabled mother and your out-of-work father all cramped in a house with an open sewer outside, a massive hole in the bathroom floor no one could afford to fix (we stepped over particle-board to shit, but that broke and one of us fell through, but only down to the dirt foundation of the house, about three feet). It was so fucking cold in that bathroom with wind coming through that open floor and we couldn’t take a bath in the winter because of it, but we were lucky because we at least had running water.
That’s what I mean by poor. I wore the same underwear from the time I was 7 until I was 12 despite the fact that I’d grown significantly from that time, because underwear was a luxury we couldn’t afford. So was healthcare and the dentist. You ever see my teeth? You most likely won’t. Go back through every photo you’ve seen of me online and try to find depictions of them.
I’ll give you a few minutes there.
I’ll tell you one more thing about that time, or actually something that I recently learned from that time. It came when my siblings and I were talking about what we remembered from our childhood. One of them said (and I started crying), “all I remember is how hungry we always were.” One of them still sets aside a portion of her meal, even as she’s much older and much better off than we’d ever been in those days, just in case there’s nothing to eat later, because we never knew if there would be and there often wasn’t. Not eating everything at a meal meant that when hunger hit you later you at least had something.
My reaction was different. When I finally had access to food, I over-ate. I was a huge adolescent, 280 pounds at 17 because I was working and could finally afford to eat. And I did–like fucking mad, making up for a childhood of absence, of hunger.
It took years to teach my body that I wasn’t going to starve again, to train myself not to stuff as much food into my stomach as I could fit (and then some), to undo decades of fear that I’d have to go long weeks of powdered milk and government-supplied rice.
That’s what I mean by poverty.
Poverty of Spirit
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. …All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
–Marx and Engles, The Communist Manifesto
Someone asked me why I’m always so angry even when I’m doing so ‘well.’ Another person suggested I had a ‘dark shadow’ looming over me which made me approach others in rage rather than ‘compassion.’ Yet a third questioned why my critiques of Capitalism were out of line ‘with love’ and instead seemed to come from a spirit of criticism, using ‘hurtful’ words instead of ‘helpfully building community.’
But whose community? Whose idea of ‘well? Whose idea of love?
Since becoming ‘public’ or even an inadvertent ‘leader’ (by which I suspect we really mean antagonist) in Pagan spaces, I’ve met some rather incredible people, full of magic and beauty and love for the world. Most of ’em have been as poor as me, at least for some part of their life. They’re usually the ones you’ll find protesting another death, or building a homeless camp, or fundraising for poor people, or building mutual-aid networks, or offering free teaching, or being so fucking busy helping people they’ll never have money.
I’ve met some others, unfortunately. Most of them are called ‘leaders’ too, often of entire traditions, or occupying mediated spaces of public voice regardless of what they know. A lot of them have money and are eager to make more, eager to sell you things, or sell you ways to make money, or gain power, or sell you secrets the gods and spirits and dead will teach you for free.
And some of those people write things about what we all ‘need’ to do. We need more love and compassion and hope and magic. Some of ’em will tell you that ‘poor magicians are poor magicians’ (that is, a witch who’s poor isn’t a very good witch). Some of them will awkwardly hold lopsided print-outs that say ‘White privilege exists’ because someone else coerces them into it. Some of them run courses where you can learn to better bring wealth into your personal sphere, or will write sage pieces about how we all need to live in more compassion with the earth and the animals and trees, or how to attain peace and unity with the divine.
But I will tell you this–if they aren’t poor but are telling you how to be more ‘compassionate’ and ‘magical’ or how to build a ‘Pagan Future’ or stop climate change, they don’t know what they’re fucking talking about.
Have a statistic:
“people in the U.S. who earned more than $75,000 emitted nearly four times as much C02 as those who earned less than $10,000.”
See that? I could march those out like an army of the dead from the Cauldron of Annwn if you like. Here’s another one, though:
You see why American Pagans suggesting a ‘change of spirit’ or ‘more compassion’ or ‘loving the goddess’ seems a bit false?
It’s because Capitalism is the problem, and so are we, if we don’t fight it.
I say ‘we’ all the time, but I’m on the low-end of that collective ‘we.’ Let’s be clear on that–I barely even belong in the white Pagan spaces I enter, nor in the discourses where we talk about what to do about this. Though I happen to appear to be a college-educated middle-class white male (that’s what privilege does, folks), I’d actually belong with the broken-teethed trailer-dwelling backwoods racist white guy railing about how Odin’s just for white guys–I’m in their income bracket.
And do not be mistaken–the same Capitalist system that kills black men every 28 hours in America drives the poor white man into the arms of racialist ideologues and is the exact same Capitalism that is destroying the earth.
In the piece that inspired this post, John Halstead suggests that Alley Valkyrie (and by extension, Marx) gets things wrong about what needs to be done to fix our mess:
“So, I agree with Alley that working toward a shift in consciousness is not sufficient by itself. But likewise, neither do I believe that changing our economic system will be sufficient by itself.”
Look. I’ve been known in the past to take issue with John’s writing, but he’s actually on to something that he may not realise he’s on to.
His reading of Marx is quite wrong, but he admits, too, that he’s oversimplifying. And I hope the irony’s not lost on anyone that a Polytheist is arguing for the primacy of the material against a Humanist urging a spiritual shift. Maybe it’s because I interact with a myriad of gods and spirits that I’m hyper-aware of how fucked up our economic system is–the gods don’t deal in coins and wealth and wages, yet humans unfortunately do.
And let me be very clear–John never utters any of the ridiculous self-exalting shit you’ll hear from the goddess-and-light crowd. He’s one of the few you can always count on never to go new-age/inner-peace on you. That, more than anything, is why we need Humanists around.
But–it is our economic system which is fucked. It’s sustained in place by modern myths of progress and the modern disease of disenchantment, which is why it’s hard for any of us to see the gods and why we’re so spiritually desolate. If you’re going to argue that anything should change, start there, ’cause you can do all the yoga you want, it won’t stop the rape of the planet until you change the conditions of humanity.
Capitalism didn’t start when people stopped loving the land. It started when people were pushed off the land, forced off The Commons into factories to wage their time money. The poor didn’t stop revering the forests; they were pushed out of them. Now they’re crammed in cities where they never even see the stars, let alone the wild.
Likewise, the machines fueled by coal which has warmed our planet–those weren’t for the poor. Those machines were built for the rich to make more money off of the labor of the poor. The poor tried to destroy those machines with the help of Ludd; now we’re thumbing our smartphones and driving our cars and pretending we’re not complicit in all this death.
Give Everything To Be Poor
But for all of this, John’s right. A shift of consciousness is required, just one bigger than he suspects.
What’s required is one on par with what happened to St. Francis of Assisi when he first found the divine. That mad joy-struck monk not only gave away everything he owned, he also gave away almost everything his father owned, selling his merchant-families wares at a loss in order to rebuild a shrine. And then he never sought money or wages again, instead eating only what was given to him and preferring rotted scraps over hot meals.
Again, you know who isn’t warming the earth and melting the glaciers and exploiting children in factories? The fucking poor. The ‘humility’ some priests talk about, the ‘community’ others urge, the ‘love of the goddess’ yet more suggest that we need is true, they just don’t know how terrifyingly true.
How much do you really need? How much of this shit is worth destroying the planet? Is your nice condo in the city worth the death of black men? Your tech job–is it worth the rivers of poison in China? Your car–are you comfortable with your complicity in the destruction of forests and the warming of the earth? Your organic strawberries–are they worth the near-enslavement of brown people?
I’ve never been comfortable with it.
But, then again, I grew up poor. Despite all the horrors of my childhood, I’m fucking glad of it, because I know you can survive on nothing. I also know that the hunger I endured and the coal-soot in the winter and my grandfather’s brain tumor and our open sewer was all only just a taste of what feeds the voracious hunger of Capitalism.
I’m really glad John Halstead suggested this change of consciousness. And it’s time for the Spirit of Poverty to catch on, because otherwise we’re slaughtering each other, glutted upon the waged-time of those below us, the poisoned rivers and the carnage while telling each other pretty lies.