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The Magical Economy

Some weeks back, I went to Glastonbury for a workshop given by Starhawk.  I was pursuing my research into the pilgrimage economy there and into the whole phenomenon of goddess worship, as well as trying to stimulate my own thoughts about the women’s economy and its connection to religion.  (And, to be honest, a weekend at the Jasmin Cottage with little more to do than chant and meditate was what my body and soul were needing most, as my work life was becoming very stressful.)

If you follow the path through the lovely, long garden behind Jasmin Cottage, you see the meditation room where Justine Bonner gives great massages. Any excuse to go to Glastonbury, just to spend a few days here.

OK, so, basically, Starhawk is the world’s most famous living witch. She is also a deep thinker and a political force.  I have heard her speak a few times and I am always impressed by her calm demeanor, her evident intelligence, her creativity, and her knowledge. In fact, I have never known anyone hear her who did not come away impressed, including Jim who otherwise merely tolerates my interest in this whole topic.

This "witch in a bottle," displayed at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, was acquired in 1926 from a woman who warned of trouble if you opened the stopper. I am not writing about that kind of witch.

Starhawk was a founder of the Reclaiming movement in the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Reclaiming was begun as an alternative spirituality, a form of goddess worship and witchcraft, that would be life-affirming and feminist, in contrast to the leading world religions. Starhawk’s first book, Spiral Dance, popularized the movement and is still probably its best known and most used text. Reclaiming is now an international phenomenon–you can find it nearly anywhere in North America or Western Europe.

Reclaiming has been political from the beginning, but over the years it has become increasingly oriented toward progressive activism, particularly with regard to the environment, though feminism and non-violence are also frequent causes.  (In this subculture, the word “witch” is used as an oppositional self-label, like declaring oneself a revolutionary or an anarchist.  This word and others, like “magic” and even “goddess,” are not necessarily used as traditionally defined. ) Most recently, Starhawk herself has been called to speak at Occupy Wall Street rallies.  I knew this and was hopeful that she might speak a bit about economics during the weekend, especially because the workshop topic was empowerment.

Starhawk at a meeting in Sicily my friend Diego attended. At Glastonbury, I was in a spiral dance with Starhawk, which in this community is on a level with having seen Elvis.

Starhawk has a strong class consciousness, as feminists from the 1970s often do, in addition to an informed attachment to environmental well being. She did not say much in this workshop about economics other than some references to power structures, corporations, and the like. She did make a few jokes about training the Occupy “newbies” in the art of public protest, but that was all she said about the world economy.  So I was a bit disappointed, though the quiet weekend was a welcome respite. On returning home, though, I was inspired to look again at The Earth Path, a book on spirituality and the environment that Starhawk published a few years ago, because I remembered that some of that thinking might be useful.

Starhawk’s philosophy insists, first and foremost, on the sacred nature of the physical world.  Most goddess/wicca/feminist spiritualities begin with this premise, which seems banal until you purposely set it beside the world’s major religions, all of which instead emphasize the superiority of an imagined other world, immaterial and unseen, locked away in another dimension.

I took this photo while climbing the Tor--Glastonbury's most famous landmark--early on my first day. I have climbed it many times, but that morning I only made it halfway. It is a common destination for pilgrims and has been for thousands of years.

Our own presence in the world is also sacred.  Humans are not separate from nature, but an integral part of it–no more important than other creatures, but no less so, either.  That sets this philosophy apart from much environmentalist thinking, as well. Far from pushing superstition (as people might expect), Starhawk emphasizes scientific understanding of the material world (particularly understanding of biological or climatic processes).  However, the whole Reclaiming approach distances itself from Richard Dawkins‘ ideology by insisting there is a life of the spirit, but it is coterminous with the material world.

The core question then becomes: how should a spiritual creature (a human) interact with her material-but-sacred setting?  As I wrote in a recent post, every religion is, at base, a way of thinking about how to be in the physical world. I would further argue that the answer to a very similar question is also at the foundation of any economic philosophy.

In the Reclaiming practice (as well as related spiritualities), physical sustenance takes no moral precedence over the need for mental stimulation, creative effort, or ritual expression. Obviously, a spiritual creature (whose physical existence is not an illusion but a present expression of her fundamental nature) would need to use the things around her to cultivate her mind and spirit, not just her body, right?  In so doing, she would be engaging in a form of trade with the other inhabitants and forces of the planet (which would include “elements” like air and water, not just animals and plants).  It would be important to be fair in that exchange and to maintain or create abundance, rather than merely destroy.  (Here is an ethos of stewardship, as is also central in Islam. This is not so typical of Christianity, which has tended to support the premise that “man” is the ruler of the natural world and can use it as “he” chooses.  The notion that we have a moral obligation to steward the earth’s resources is also at odds with the typical attitude of economics over the past 200 years or so, which has tended to view the natural world only as an input to production.)

Interestingly, there is also no end-of-life reward in this worldview–no existential jackpot waiting at the end of the road, no goading to get it right so you can go to heaven.  Instead, the spiritual plane is here and now, the very act of living in the world a sacrament. In many ways, this is a much more challenging remit for humanity than posed by traditional, rule-keeping religions, though people tend to see all sorts of neopaganism as silly and somehow less disciplined than the leading faiths.  (People are always asking whether I meet a lot of weirdos in this aspect of my work.  The answer is that I do meet quite a few weirdos, but no greater percentage of the total than I met in the many years I attended Christian churches.)

The natural world is seen as a complex interconnected web, much more creative and unpredictable than a mere cause-and-effect machine, one that is constantly recycling and recreating itself. Thus, interactions with the physical plane must be careful and provisional. You must always be braced for the unintended effects of your actions, and be prepared to cease, correct if possible, try anew.  Compartmentalized thought is discouraged–though acknowledged as sometimes useful–because only holistic thinking can anticipate the full range of possible effects, beneficial or harmful, from any action.

This small altar to the goddess of fire is actually typical of spiritual practice worldwide, in that special objects are used for spiritual purposes--to honor or evoke or commemorate the divine. The difference is that this philosophy recognizes the need for material creatures to use objects in this way, whereas some world religions (Protestant Christianity, Islam) condemn such practices, calling them "idolatrous," though they are virtually universal (found especially in churches and mosques). Traditionally, economics would have characterized the purchase of an object for spiritual purposes as an "irrational" decision (the economic parallel to "idolatrous" or even "heretical").

Consciousness is an active creative force in all this.  Many people of this persuasion insist that we create our lives out of consciousness, that our thoughts affect everything around us. I am still not sure what I think about that. Some days I like the idea, some days it seems solipsistic and ridiculous.  But this concept helps you understand Starhawk’s use of the word  “magic”:  for her, magic is patterned thinking that intentionally alters consciousness toward a particular end.   No rabbits from hats, no “double, double, toil and trouble” about it.

There are many aspects of this thinking that are appealing to me and that I feel would fit with the imperatives for a woman’s economy.  For instance, the more holistic thinking, the resistance to compartmentalization, is clearly demanded to reunite production and reproduction, functions that are usually thought of as utterly separate today.  I feel that the idea of material transactions as a form of exchange with a sacred setting is intriguing, could lead to a more ethical idea of what economic life is. The thought that economics is about realizing human (and natural) potential is so much better than thinking it is about some dead thing like interest rates or demand curves. I believe that women often see what they are doing with their work, their purchases, and their investments as realizing some greater outcome like a healthy garden or an educated child–they are much less enamored of money for its own sake than conventional economic thought would have it. Women’s economic behavior cannot, in my opinion, be explained by some variation on a concept of self-interest without doing violence either to the description of their behavior or to any usefully constrained definition of “self-interest.”

The positive view of the material world is just generally nicer, less dark and punitive, as well as more. . . well, feminine than the world religions allow. I also like the more humane notion of needs, the acceptance of the multiple uses for which we consume goods.

The idea of the economy as a great living thing, roiling around the globe like the ocean, is more interesting and, in my view, more realistic, than the delusion it is some giant abstract machine that a small group of economists understand and control (talk about weirdos). The potential to change the world, making it better, by altering the consciousness that directs the flow of goods, accumulating the holistic knowledge necessary to manage the system into a balanced abundance, seems like the best kind of magic to me.

Anyway, obviously I need to keep thinking about it, but my gut tells me something like this has potential to inspire, while current thinking about economics can only bore or sicken most of us, and that an approach to the women’s economy might be more like this way of thinking than like the vast wasteland that neoclassical economics has become.


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