Review: Theory as History by Jarius Banaji (Brill, 2011)

While I do not always agree with Banaji, particularly of his dismissal of the English agrarian capital thesis and the Brenner/Woods reading as an “orthodoxy,” his discussions of Egypt, the late medieval Islamic trade development, the problems with the “Asiatic modes of production” and “tributary mode of production” as well as historical blind spots in general Marxist, and, ironically given their third world focus, specifically Maoist misreadings of past. Banaji’s strength is his knowledge of periods before capitalism and the complications of “transitions,” and he is particularly convincing in contrasting Mexico with Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries. I do think, however, that Banaji focuses intensely on moods of production but is deliberately somewhat loose with what counts as capitalism outright, and his criterion seemed a little vaguer than that of Woods/Brenner.

Parts of this book seem clearly targeted at the Maoist argument that “survivals of pre-capitalist relations of production” mean that the prime revolutionary class is the peasantry against the assertions of earlier Stalinists and other forms of communism about the working class. Banaji, as Mike MacNair already has said in his review of the book, “argues that the whole ‘traditional Marxist’ scheme of differences between modes of production which are defined by the mode of exploitation – slavery in classical antiquity, serfdom under feudalism, wage labour under capitalism – is to be rejected.” Banaji does this because there are proto-capitalist elements and profound misunderstanding of Asian and late antique economies in most Marxist schemas, and that the schema is both too theoretically simple. This argument is the thread that keeps these otherwise unrelated scholarly essays together. I also think that Banaji’s looser definition of capitalism frustrates all kinds of other Marxists particularly when looking at over-generalizations in other modes of production.

Interestingly, while there is no “pure” agrarian capitalism according to Banaji, he does prove that there was significant wage labor in both pre-modern and third world agriculture earlier than most Marxists conceive. This is significant as it draws out the horizon of the origins out beyond England. However, where I disagree with Banaji is that wage-relationships and focus on reinvestment did NOT characterize Mediterranean interface of Catholic Christendom, Byzantium and the Dar al-Islam. Banaji does prove that Brenner/Woods may have been under-stating the development of elements of capital, but he his only focusing on one part of Brenner/Woods two part definition. That said, this does complicate the development of capitalism quite clearly.

Furthermore, Banaji seems to reject teleologies as such. He seems to conflate the ideas that = that capital developmental would have a purposive and long-run developments that were emergent from their own logic, and would have a systemic teleological pattern to the idea of a teleology of history itself. To my mind, this is reading Hegelian and German idealist assumptions about what a teleology is back into the entirety of history. This means that Banaji seems to reject a clear emergence point for capitalism and a developmental logic, partly because of Marx’s “Here be Dragons” elements of Asiatic production.

This is not to dismiss Banaji. This is an important book, and while not necessarily easy for lay-readers in either medieval economic history or inter-Marxist debates, it is a vital read. It also calls for Marxists to look at non-European societies and do more significant comparative work before making big claims about history. The strongest chapters are the ones dealing with conceptions of “free” and “unfree” labor in the modern political economy as well as ones critiquing a lack of historiography in Marxist circles around antiquity and around non-European developmental modes.

The Precarious Liberality

Taking a break from poetry month drafts, Benjamin at Marmalade opines Thankless Task of Being a Liberal.  It is a pretty thankless task because it is both omnipresent and consistently denied.  Benjamin comes up with three questions:

This is how the liberal dream slowly fades away. Liberals forget what was so great about the dream in the first place. Were we ever so naive to believe in it? With experience, we learn of the hollow rhetoric of politicians. Yet every once in a while the old inspiration hits us and for that moment we believe something else might be possible.

Yet even then, it’s challenging for us liberals to say what liberalism is or could be about. If we no longer had any excuses for failure, what would we do? If we fought hard for our principles and won that fight, what would the world look like? If the liberal vision were unleashed, what could be accomplished?

What is liberalism? And what would happen if we liberals took it seriously? If liberals don’t fight for liberalism, who will? Then again, if most liberals fought hard and fought to win, would they still be liberals? What if, instead, liberalism isn’t what it appears to be?

Why are there so few liberals at the bloody frontlines of the battle for justice and freedom, so few liberals in ghettos, prisons and refugee camps? Why does liberalism usually only attract those living comfortable lives? Why is it so often that the first thing liberals are willing to sacrifice is their own liberalism?

Part of what makes this complicated is that liberalism as we understand it is not just an economic ideology with roots in Lockean, Humean, and even Kantian branches of the European Enlightenment. Even between those three thinkers, one has radically different conceptions of both the justification for “liberty and equality” in both contexts and manifestation. Locke roots it in property and the improvement of land–Locke coming out of the agrarian capitalism of early Modern English state and Protestant reformations/revolutions that led to landowners being increasingly in charge of the company. In Locke you have both the justification for liberal self-ownership but also the justification for chattel slavery and colonial forms of Imperial expansion.

Still Liberalism is much larger than this and in its dominance of the ideological much more promiscuous. Part of the problem with calling anything in modern North America or Europe “liberal” is that an element of it legitimately sticks and can be traced to a liberal movement in 16th and 17th century. After all, even anti-liberal leftists like Mao and Engels fundamentally began in liberal circles first. Marx in Hegelian circles, and thus he too is a capital of idealist mutation of the Enlightenment. Modern conservatism, as even DeMaistre observed, were impossible with the revolutions at the ned of the religious wars of the 15th and 16th century. Indeed, DeMaistre viewed the French revolution as a teleological necessary to birth a reaction to it. Illiberalism itself, in the post-European and European world, is born as a reaction against the dominance of liberalism.

Yet the definition has shifted and morphed, and differentiated within itself to the point where, while not non-cognitive, it is very hard to say what liberalism is. Even an illiberal like myself still comes out of that fundamental framework just like I also come out of assumptions around Christian culture in specific and Abrahamic culture in general. These assumptions have been wedded to capitalism but are slightly tangential to it and are only tied because of the particular contingencies of history.

In the the scandal is the liberal mind may not be its defeat or decline, it is more than in its dominance in a time of capitalism, it not longer has a coherent identity. The scandal of the liberal mind isn’t one. It is thus useful primarily as slur. Something to try to differentiate oneself from, and yet in the case in Europe and US, a conservative is just a liberal from a different age more often than not.

Poetry, Egypt, And Other Stuff I write elsewhere about…

I have not been blogging as much lately for a few pronounced reasons:  my job is demanding a lot of me lately, which is fine, but I also edit a literary journal, am working a few volumes of poetry, frankly trying to market that poetry while being out of the literary world of the States, read manuscripts for Zero books, and sometimes reviewing for Hong Kong Review of Books.

I am not going away; simply don’t have time for as much work here.  Furthermore, this blog has a low readership compared to my other blogs.  I don’t do as many interviews for it explicitly.

More will be coming soon as I started writing a post about my travels in Turkey and Egypt, but didn’t want to sound like an entitled expatriate pontificating on cultures that I live around but don’t necessarily comprehend all that well.

The Lame Necromancy of Political Sigils

If I were a magician or a Inquisitor and could magically remove the tongues and fingers of those who think they can key-broad warrior to revolution (ignoring that outside of cyber-security threats, pens may be mightier than the sword, but they are tend to be a be weaker than tank division) or take their long march through academia into the streets instead of out of it, I would ban people trying to invoke 19th and early 20th century discussions about Unions and Labor Parties as answers to contemporary political problems from the face of the North America.

This lame necromancy of trying to talk with words about Unions from pre-Taft Hartley or like the legal structures of either the US or Canada even remotely reflected that of North Europe needs to be dropped. This isn’t just a case of rebranding, although I will make an argument for that in a minute. This cuts deeper than this.  I used to call it LARPing, but this metaphor has blossomed on the inter like red algae in the Mexican gulf killing the fish of thought in droves. It is, frankly, trying to be pretend a lot of the 20th century just didn’t happen in the US.

Not that I don’t want people to read labor history, know the writings of Eugene Debs and history of the IWW, or even know debates about Unionism in the Soviet Union.  People can be benefited by this history, but what you aren’t going to do is raise the dead.   No amount of blood rites to Trotskyist newspapers or kickstarters or canvasing factory is going to be enough to have labor unions have significant power in the even OECD as a whole, much less the United States.

To quote the source of all easy knowledge:

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics surveyed the histories of union membership rates in industrialized countries from 1970 to 2003, and found that of 20 advanced economies which had union density statistics going back to 1970, 16 of them had experienced drops in union density from 1970 to 2003. Over the same period during which union density in the US declined from 23.5 percent to 12.4 percent, some counties saw even steeper drops. Australian unionization fell from 50.2 percent in 1970 to 22.9 percent in 2003, in New Zealand it dropped from 55.2 percent to 22.1 percent, and in Austria union participation fell from 62.8 percent down to 35.4 percent. All the English-speaking countries studied saw union membership decline to some degree. In the United Kingdom, union participation fell from 44.8 percent in 1970 to 29.3 percent in 2003. In Ireland the decline was from 53.7 percent down to 35.3 percent. Canada had one of the smallest declines over the period, going from 31.6 percent in 1970 to 28.4 percent in 2003. Most of the countries studied started in 1970 with higher participation rates than the US, but France, which in 1970 had a union participation rate of 21.7 percent, by 2003 had fallen to 8.3 percent. The remaining four countries which had gained in union density were Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium.

IF there is a magic rule of political revolutions, they require the participation of the 1/3 of the population. Even in the vaulted mystical realm of Western Europe, where left-liberals often seem to the think promised land is prototyped, you don’t reach those numbers. Furthermore, large scale industrial and social change actually is harder than a political revolution and generally requires closer to 50% of social mobilization. Agrarian capitalism and the transition to industrial capital in England took place over a 200 year period and involved most of the mobilization of society, fundamentally changing the nature of English class structure. It wasn’t planned–it was a confluence of Protestant reformations, limits of nobility to use extra-economic force inside of England, seizure of church poverty by the state, enclosures of the commons, and end of both the peasant and the yeoman class throughout. It also was aided by a revolution of religious zealous land holders, and then some Kings coming back and making concessions to them.  Much harder than taking control of a state house or enforcing a constitution.

What does that have to do with Unions?  Well, even in France and Germany, Union membership is approaching less than 35%.  In the US and UK, where many of these Unions were born, it is down below 20%. Furthermore, it gets worse when you look at the composition of Unions: 

  ▪ Management, professional: 11.9%
▪ Service: 9.2%
▪ Sales and office: 6.5%
▪ Natural resources, construction, and
maintenance: 15.3%
▪ Production, transportation, and
material moving: 14.8%

Services and trucking are two largest sectors of the US economy. The largest private employer is Walmart and out of the top 10 private employers–eight of them are retail services.  These workers do not make commodities and do have the same pull overproduction, so striking is not as effective.  Furthermore, they make up on 9.2% of all Union membership in the US.    Trucking is the largest employing field, and while it does have 15% union membership, a large portion of the trucking work force is

Parsing the numbers though, the bad news doesn’t end there. The military and police are huge sectors of the US employment, and police unions have been a bane of Liberals for a long time.  Military is not unionized as they do not have civilian rights, and a military welfare state reduces the need for anyway.  Left Liberals like teacher unions, although they are illegal or highly limited in many US states–in Georgia, they are technically illegal and have no right to strike–but most of their money goes to lobbying anyway.

Most of the operational budget of AFL-CIO goes to lobbying, mostly to Democrats, who generally betray them anyway because they are seen as a locked in patronage. Although the rise of Trump may have complicated that, it seems to continue.  Meanwhile, stocks make up an increasing amount of Unions  income, and Union leadership tend to make up words of 200,000 a year. 

Lastly, trade unions are one of few types of unions allowed largely in the Southern US: contractors Unions, writers unions, electrician unions.  These, however, do not function like industrial unions as they largely work to provide insurance for the members and to help with state licensing regimes. This means they operate more like medieval and early modern guilds than our picture of industrial unions.

This doesn’t even include Taft-Hartley, which gutted a lot of what we think of Unions being able to do in a labor movement: it outlawed closed shops, helped AFL-CIO kill dual unionism limiting the ability to work across various industries, killed the Wagner Acts provision on employer neutrality,  had explicit anti-communist and anti-socialist clauses, made cross coordinated strikes illegal.

All this does not include the historical ambivalence of Unions on race and immigration in the work force, which has also damaged reputations of unions in some of the most marginalized communities.

Why do you think appealing to strikes in the 1930s and ignoring things like the lost of the battle of Matewon and the end of the Wagner act can just make this history magically go away?

When we talk about US labor, we aren’t talking about a unionized work force.  In fact, only in four Nordic countries have unions made some gains and even here there have been relative declines partly over immigration.

Words don’t fix that.  They aren’t spells to resurrect a corpse.

This also means that a labor party that could access “dual power”–see my discussion with Doug Lain on this concept--and not just work for vote funneling like most modern political parties can’t depend on that model either.  No matter how much Bernie Sanders or even someone I deeply respect like Adolph Reed wants it too. In fact, as I discussed in with Tom O’Brian a few years back, this notions of a Leninist or even Kautskyist vanguard party are dependent on fundamentally different notions about what a party is than what contemporary people believe they are.  The political organizations that have been successful at dual power strategies in the modern period:  religious groups and religious-ethnic political parties.  Hamas builds schools as does the Southern Baptist convention. These groups function like older political groups that Marxists seem to think are looming somewhere in reading groups, college dorm roads, and meet-ups with the 10 local 20-somethings who are in labor unions.

The first step to admitting fixing a problem is admitting the scale of the problem. The second step is to stop magic thinking.  Let the dead bury themselves and quit trying to keep those zombies going.  It’s time to think differently about political organization. We are in the midst of watching a political realignment happen over two decades and finally begin to manifest in the US. The Overton window has moved in both directions in such a way that makes even contemporary taxonomies feel vaguely like necrophilia of old ideas.  Forms of organization from before world war 2?

Those skeletons are seeping calcium at this point.



Interview With Fr. Jordan Stratford (Green Triangle, 2006)

Derick Varn: The first one is somewhat simple, how you would like to introduce yourself to our readers?

Fr. Jordan Stratford: Okay, I’m 39, four kids, hopelessly in love with my wife of six years. I work as a Creative Director for a small ad agency, and I live in Victoria BC Canada. I’ve been a Sophianic Gnostic for about 17 years. I consider myself a Priest of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. What that means to me is that, if you go back say six, eight thousand years – well, further, actually – you have people employing a Eucharistic ritual to invest the material with the spiritual. The central idea of Western Religion is incarnation, that the Divine is real and can (and does) become manifest in the world. There are specific forms of this ritual that are unique in the West, and have a continuity from antiquity to the present day. You see this in ancient Egypt, throughout the Greek Mysteries, Persian Mithraism, through the Sol Invictus Cult of ancient Rome, continuing through Christianity. Later it winds through nominally Christian but distinctly heretical movements such as the Templars, the Cathars, the Rosicrucians, the Liberal Catholics and occult investigations of the late 19th Century. I am a part of that Tradition.
Specifically I’m a Gnostic Priest, of the Apostolic Johannite Church – an esoteric Gnostic Christian communion with valid apostolic succession.


D.V.: How are the Johannite Church and the Ecclesia Gnostica related?


J.S.:  Well I would personally argue that they are both of the same ekklesia, although no formal relationship exists between them.  We use the same liturgical calendar, same ecclesiology, and I think you’d be hard pressed to point out any significant differences.  It’s logical that at some point there will be a formal relationship.  For most people it’s simply a matter of proximity.   If you’re a Gnostic in Seattle, you go to Rev. Sam’s EG Mass.  If you’re inCalgary, you go to the AJC Mass at St. Joseph’s.


D.V.: And are both different from say, the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica?


J.S.: Vastly – the current EGC is not the original EGC but rather a homonymous organization that sprouted up in the early 80’s.  The avowed anti-christianity and anti-semitism of its liturgy make it I think incompatible with the excellent work that the modern Gn churches are doing; Bishop +Hoeller’s church, Bishop +Rosamonde’s wonderful Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum, and of course the Johannite church.


D.V: What about the Gnostic reconstruction movement makes it difficult to sort of have a unified front the way say, SCOBA (The Standing Conference of Cannonical Orthodox Bishops) do in the US and Canada?


J.S.: I think that the NACGB is an excellent start: it hits some of the common snags that plague any alternate religious congress.  The thing to remember is that most such organizations serve as divisive, discerning heresy from orthodoxy, whereas such an approach is largely anathema to most practicing Gnostics.  Which is not to say we’re so open-minded our brains fall out; just that if our approach is more Jungian and another’s is more Martinist, there’s room for us to challenge and learn from one another.  The current emphasis is on Gn churches which are also Indie Catholics, and I personally would be reluctant to see that change: there is certainly a role for a broader conference that would include some of the more Protestant-oriented groups, such as the AGCA.


D.V.: On the center corners of the Internet where Occult-types make up a disproportion number than in the “real world” population–such as blogger, livejournal, etc–“Gnostic” is often code word for Thelemite.  Now, there many things that Thelemites and Gnostics share in common, but it also seems to be a source of confusion and bad blood.  What do Gnostic reconstructors (in their Manichaean and Christian influences) have in common with most Crowleyan Thelemites?


J.S.: I interpret “Knowledge and Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel” as synonymous with gnosis.  “Do what thou wilt” means both attaining and incorporating gnosis: figure out the truth about why you’re here, and just do that.  There is certainly a significant Hermetic strand in the Gnostic braid, and Thelema does a fairly good job of representing that.  Crowley also had a solid understanding of the archetypal role of the Divine Feminine, and this too is shared by Gn churches.  It’s obvious that Crowley wished his work to be seen in the context of the Restoration; this explains his adoption of the symbolism and titles of the original EGC.  Presumably modern Thelemites have some desire to be likewise associated.  It’s something we can build on.


D.V: And what are some differences?


J.S.:  I think the main criticism of Thelema is due to the fact that they seem to mistake the general for the specific: either by viewing Crowley’s experience as unique and making him a kind of Dark Messiah, or by erroneously claiming that Thelema is a new religion ex nihilo.  The thing is, Liber Al has to be seen as a personal work, relevant only to Crowley and his Victorian programming.  The idea that one should adopt this as scripture – anti-Semitic screeds and all – is just not healthy.  Gnosis means being the Magus of your own Aeon.  Put down thatEquinox and get on with it.


D.V.: Now while some see Gnosticism as a largely Christian heresy or even a pre-Nicene Christianity… but is there a role for less Christian oriented Gnostics in these independent Catholic Gnostic Churches and in the broader movements?


J.S.: I think it’s a mistake to see Gnosticism as something other than a distinct, pre-Christian religion which both contributed to and influenced greatly early Christian history.  So, yes, speaking as a non-Christian Sophianic Gnostic, is there room for me?  I hope so!  Certainly the AJC has been generous and welcoming to me, and making room for my contributions both liturgically and pastorally.


D.V.: It seems that Protestant oriented Gnostics are extremely rather, although certain Protestant movements such as the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Quakers have been said to have Gnostic tendencies.  Do you see there being any relationship?   How do conceptions or misconceptions hinder the more Protestant-esque Gnostic groups?


J.S.: I see a very strong Gnostic resonance in the Quakers – as for the LDS all I see is the random co-option of symbols without any apparent significance.  As for what the “Protestant-esque” groups are doing, I personally leave such discernment up to the individual.  Gnosticism is the artists’ religion: I work in oil, you work in watercolours.  We’re still all of us looking at this experience of gnosis from different angles, jamming on it, playing with, experimenting and innovating.


D.V.: What is Gnosis? How is it similar and different from the English word, knowledge?


J.S.: I understand gnosis to be a way of seeing; a poetic language of experience for describing our intimacy with the indwelling Divine.  The word “knowledge” is more closely associated with episteme: knowing your zip code or the capitol of Finland.  I am fond of Gilles Quispel’s interpretation of gnosis as “knowledge of the heart”.


D.V.: How do sacraments interact with gnosis in a Johannite viewpoint?


J.S.: The sacraments serve, literally, to inspire, to breathe on the Divine Spark within all of us in hopes of kindling that sacred flame.  Out of respect and caretaking for its Apostolic heritage, the AJC honours the same seven sacraments of orthodox Christianity, but from a pneumatic understanding rather than an exoteric or dogmatic stance.


D.V.: I am struck on how this Gnostic view of sacraments is not all that different from an Eastern Orthodox mystical view, even if it is a more pistic perspective.  What kind of relationship is it possible for more exoteric Christians to have with esoteric ones?


J.S.: Well for the most part of history, the esoteric folks have been sitting in the back pews, getting their esoteric on, with the exoteric folks up front none the wiser.  I think what it boils down to is whether you see the sacraments as real or not; if they’re real, then they work regardless of who’s ministering.  Most Gnostics today are showing up to mainstream Catholic and Anglican churches, Unitarian and UCC congregations, and Friends meetings.  There are only a dozen functioning ecclesiastical Gnostic parishes in North America.  One does what one can.


D.V.: And I know you are probably sick of this kind of question, but how has the boom in scholarly and popular literature created by things like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and the Gospel of Judas affected the way gnosis is talked about? Has it affected church membership?



I think it’s shored up the misconception that Gnostic is a later Christian heresy, and presented a conspiracy-theory style literalist pseudohistory that’s really missed the entire point. Gnosticism has never been about “what happened” but rather “what is happening”,
about engaging with and personally re-interpreting myth and scripture.  Recent attention has for the most part given opportunity to our critics to defame us as “world hating dualists” — but it’s also fair to say that there are many Gnostics who now self-identify
due to the Da Vinci Code phenomenon.


D.V.: Well, what do you think was the critical mass that led both gnostic and mystic ideas out of mainstream American Christianity? Is it rooted in Roman Catholic legalism at the beginning of Modern Europe? Or is it something else?


J.S.: Well I don’t think Gn ideas ever left Christianity, and certainly I’d say that Gn ideas in fact underscore distinctly American Christianity, which is really a kind of millennarian 19th Century Folk Religion, a kind of pidgin with little in common with historic orthodoxy.  Bloom states that Gnosticism is the true American religion.  People go to megachurches because they want an immediate, overwhelming and intimate sense of the Shekhina, they want the peace that surpasseth all understanding.  They crave gnosis.


D.V.: So most people versed in the modern history of Gnostic reconstruction and other forms of esoteric spirituality know that psychology, particularly Lacanian and Jungian psychoanalysis is never all that far away. Psychology is often criticized for being a modern attempt at religion. However, the reverse criticism is often leveled at Gnosticism.  How is the mythic and Gnostic understanding different from, say, basic psychological archetypes? Or is it merely a problem of language convention?


J.S.: How am I supposed to look good in this interview when you ask me such well-thought-out and self-answering questions?


D.V.: Why do you think Gnosticism has had so much influence on popular culture, not directly like in the Da Vinci Code, but indirectly such as in The Matrix (which is admittedly a poor aping) to the works of Philip K. Dick?


J.S.: Well to be fair, the word “Gnostic” never appears in the DVC, and the Gn influence on The Matrix can hardly be considered indirect.  But such things are the root of all good stories – you’re not some poor peasant stuck in the muck, you’re really an exiled Prince, and your parents want you to return to the Kingdom and claim your birthright.  You’re not just Harry who lives under the stairs, you have magical powers and are the hero of important and dramatic events—but you’re real identity has been hidden from you by priggish and ignorant power-mad forces.  This story never goes away, because in a very real sense it’s true, and always has been.


D.V.: I am fascinated by your idea assertion about American Religion.  It seems very true, but it also seems like this sort of Gnostic faith is very more faith-based. It’s very pistic, no?  So it’s sort of divided in loyalties?   Or is it merely the reunion of the exoteric with the Gnostic without fully realizing the esoteric element?


J.S.: I did say there’s a craving for gnosis, but such a pistic approach is ultimately fruitless.  It becomes less experientially Gnostic and instead objectifies and fetishizes; resulting in a kind of “gnosisolatry”, which is to say misses the point entirely.  That being said, can one attain gnosis in a mainstream, exoteric Church?  Of course. Gnosis is our birthright, you can’t put a fence around it.  GnosticISM is a specific religious culture that centralizes and amplifies the experience of gnosis — as a means to an end, which is Grace.


D.V.: Why do you think that so many people tie Gnosticism with, say, New Age?   Admittedly, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference, but what do you think the key differences are?


J.S.: I think New Age is an entirely meaningless term.  There was a significant cultural shift in the West around the time of the first Vatican Council in 1870, which was a kind of line in the sand between medievalism and modernism on one hand, and between rationalism and mysticism on the other.  This created a new kind of category, not bourgeois but bohemian, for people to inhabit.  Look at the Symbolists, the Decadents.  They were responding artistically to what the Theosophists and the Martinists were doing philosophically; diverging, exploring, experimenting.  The Gnostic Restoration of 1890 came out of this milieu, but so too did the Golden Dawn and other instigators of what we now call “the new age”.  So really I don’t see the point in outlining artificial distinctions when really all that can come of this is one bunch of people castigating the other.  I don’t spend all day talking about chakras, or guardian angels but that’s not to say that I don’t think it can be a very valuable way of looking at things.  Are we inhabiting the same world as the 19th century?  Of course not.  We’re not inhabiting the same world as those whose lives didn’t include nuclear power, DNA, satellites, etc.  Does that make it a “new age”?  The semantics are just… soggy.


D.V.: This is of particular importance to the Johannite Gnostics, but why is it that the Gospel of John is so favored by Gnostics and esoteric Christians of all stripes?


J.S.: I think that John is the bridge between the community of John the Baptist and the early Christians, and its “high Christology” is what makes it Gnostic.  Jn is really the convincing argument that Christ is the Logos, and thus creates a continuity with the pagan world, particularly the Platonists.  I don’t think you need to accept an historical Jesus to find the idea of the Incarnate Logos valuable.


D.V.: What is the gnostic reconstruction relationship to particular regional and historical Gnostics (who are often more literally dualist than most modern Gnostics) such as the Mandaeans of Iraq or even say Zorosterians?


J.S.: To be clear, there’s a distinction to be made between the Reconstructionists – those who limit themselves to the writings of the Sethians or the Valentinians in search of the “one true Gnosticism” – and the Restorationists, whose approach is more fluid and Sophianic.  That being said, there’s almost no association at all with the Mandaeans, which I think is a shame because these are cultural barriers rather than ideological barriers.  The first step is education, and then preservation, of this unique and powerful heritage.  The war is doing unfathomable damage to entire currents of history; who knows what’s being dug up, blown up, and sold to black-marketeers?  And of immediate concern is the human tragedy of  displacement – the war has upset the uneasy peace between Muslims and Mandaeans, polarizing communities and erupting in xenophobic violence.


D.V.:  What kind of environment do you think the Gnostic of any stripe finds himself or herself?    I say this because its often thought of, ever since Eric Voegelin accused everything from communism to humanism of being gnostic since its trying to “Immanentizing the eschaton”?


J.S.: I’m not sure if I understand this question.  Voegelin was an ass; there’s nothing in Gnostic scripture or culture which justifies his conclusions.
D.V.: This leads me to the perhaps one of the most important questions: how does gnosis effect ethics in a sort of theoretical way?


J.S.: Are you speaking here of gnosis or Gnosticism?  Certainly the awareness and incorporation that one is, in essence, Divine, brings with it a profound ethical responsibility.  The very personal nature of Gnostic revelation leads one to be extremely tolerant of the experiences of others.  But really, this is a softball question.

Am I boring you yet?


D.V.: No, not boring, I think I am running out of interesting questions. So I think this will probably be my last question. So what do you have to say for gnostics in areas without Gnostic groups or churches?


J.S.: As a Gnostic, your duty is to your compassion and your own integrity.  So what do you do?  You donate blood.  You join your local art gallery.  You get outside.  You remember that what divides us is illusory and temporary.  Start something, like a monthly
coffeehouse discussion on Gnosticism.  Go to your local UU church, stand up and declare yourself Gnostic- you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the handshakes and questions that follow.

Dumb things I said ten years ago

Notes: I wrote this under an assumed name in 2006, I no longer agree with all of it. Originally published in the Green Triangle in August 2006. 

On Meritocracy and Hierarchy

“Advice to intellectuals; let no-one represent you. The fungibility of all services and people, and the resultant belief that everyone must be able to do everything, prove, in the existing order, fetters”- Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia
“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”- Ludwig Wittgenstien, Tractus Logico-Philosophicus

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”-Albert Camus


On Meritocracy I’ll start by quoting my old boss from my insurance days, Warren Buffett,

I don’t believe in the divine right of the womb. I see no reason why somebody that happens to win the ovarian lottery and come out of the right womb is entitled to fan themselves for the next 50 years or command the resources of society. If we’re going to pick an Olympic team in the year 2000, I don’t think we ought to take the eldest son or the eldest daughter of who won all the prizes in 1976 and put them on the team. I really believe in a meritocracy in athletics and I believe in a meritocracy in terms of who has the, who handles the resources of society. And we’re a better society because that’s the case. […] I take the view, it’s kind of interesting, you have people talk about the debilitating effect of food stamps on welfare recipients, the cycle of dependency and all of that sort of thing, but if you come out of the right womb, you’re on welfare the day you’re born. I mean instead of calling it a welfare officer you have a trust officer. Instead of calling it food stamps you have dividends and interest. But it’s the same picture. And I really think that, I really think that everybody ought to start at fairly close to the same place.

—  Nightline interview with Ted Koppel, March 2, 1999.

Meritocracy is predicated on everyone having equal beginning standing in the fields of protection by the law and in the fields of possible economic engagement. There is no such thing as a true and completely meritocratic society, but one can have relative levels of relationship to this. Or, at least, the law should not add any more burdens to this process. There have been critiques of meritocratic culture going from all political extremes: anarchists critique it for creating hierarchy and embedding it against the whims of “equality,” communist critique is essentially the same by in the guise of economic dialectic, and traditional European conservative and counter-revolutionary thought links this thought to both social instability and lack of compassion.

I site Warren Buffet’s quote, not because I agree with its welfare-theory, but because it shows that limited meritocracy does not, by nature, have to lack compassion.  I will address anarchist and other idealist forms of equality below, but I will talk about the problems with the fix many European style conservatives posit. One, it is predicated on a hard definition of class limitations and that those class limitations be rigid. Secondly, it requires social order to more monolithic and have the state and society enforce those ideas.  Thirdly, this logic hardly can be said to produce social stability without adding a metaphysical, “all jobs are equal in nobility” clause to it to reduce resentment.  Fourthly, most of these conservative arguments, however, do not think the king is equal to the tax collector in social value thus invalidating the third point.  Finally, this does any with the competence encouraged by meritocratic competition and can cause social order to stagnate and economic order to become inefficient.   The latter has to with incentives and has been a critique of such ordered societies–both conservative and leftist–from the time of Aristole to Karl Popper.

On Equality

“All the citizens of a state cannot be equally powerful, but they may be equally free”-Voltaire

“The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.”-Aristole

“From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.”-Fredrich Hayek

“Even when repressed,inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom, and in the end superior ability has its way”- Will Durrant

Equality, as a notion, is extremely confusing. Unlike meritocracy, whose definition is generally understood and rejected or accepted in kind, equality is a word so overused that is sometimes does not have meaning.

If by equality, we use it as a codeword for, equality before the law’s protections and before the law’s judgment in regards to merit, I agree with it–but will state that you are confusingly using a term vaguely and inaccurately. IF we say inequality of body, mind, and economic position is different from the overall value of a person, I will say that the position is metaphysical and ontological and has little to no place in either social organization or law. Equality means, literally, equal attributes or equal value. It is important that the later idea is related to mathematics where qualifying context is stripped away.

Now, we can speak of the equality of race, gender, sex, and religion in regards to overall social value and be sincere, because we are talking about sociological constructed or sociologically used ideas. It is easy to make abstractions equal, they have no context in which to contradict that judgment and, generally, increased equal treatment and better opportunity for those amongst those sociological groups to increase their ability to achieve goals. It is a misunderstanding or, at best, an evolution of the meaning of equality as a term because it is obvious that such sociological constructs do not have the same attributes, but they could have equal value because individualized context is stripped away in this discourse just like in mathematic.

One is unwise, however, to talk about individuals in the “values” based way, because individuals are defined by their context that is what gives them difference from the collective whole. Individual equality, then, as often preached by anarchists and American liberals who don’t seem to understand the mythological implications of what they are doing, is contrary to both experience and to the meaning of the word. Individual equality can only exist in context, generally, in regards to law or social or economic possibility for advancement.

On the Paradox of Meritocracy and Equality being both accepted

I will not spend much time on this because this could be an entire book, but it seems problematic that equality and meritocracy are both accepted in the dominant ideology. While they may not have to conflict in regards to abstracted equality, the idea of personal equality and personal meritocracy are in direct conflict since one implies heirarchy and the other is dependent on its lack.

On Self-law
Self-law is a good thing. To impose restraints on oneself so an outside force does not have to, is a noble act that increases personal liberty by removing the need of imposed law upon you.  Yet, this notion, so crucial to American libertarian and anarcho-capitalist thought, is stable enough to rest an entire social system unless it is predicated on a unalienable source.  In short, unless the society has the same ontological, epistemic, religious, and sociological underpinnings, self-law cannot be anything more than a virtue amongst individuals.

Simple Arguments to Avoid Being a Simpleton: Adventures in Western Religious and Secular Thought by a Skeptic

Notes: I wrote this under an assumed name in 2006, I no longer agree with all of it. Originally published in the Green Triangle in August 2006. 

Fractured Mirror: On the “Binary” of Fundamentalism and Secular Humanism:

Secularists are very selective in what bothers them as are Fundamentalists: It is as if one is either a fundamentalist or a hard-line evolutionist. Both make sense in certain context, but neither makes sense if one tries to view it in a total context.  For example, even if one accepts evolution to be true, which I do in terms larger than most neo-Darwinians would allow, we cannot speak with certainty about the cases or the original means by which evolution was set in motion. The same is true for the “big bang theory” or “creation ex nihilo“–the big bang theory may be true for the creation of the universe but it does not explain why entirely “random infinite mass” happened in the first place in what was a seems to have been a void. Creation ex nihilo can answer the why, but only in the context of a religious tradition, and even then, it doesn’t answer the how except through the most literal readings of Christian and Jewish (or Muslim or Hindu) scripture.

What does the universe grow into now if it is expanding, nothingness? Is there really anything that can be in a vacuum?  If God was there, could it have been nothing?

No, we are speaking means here, and ultimately are left with questions that can’t be understood historically or empirically.  These lacks in historicism and empiricism, however, are not grounds to use the bible as some sort of “proof” and then have children identify the bible as God. That is both unsound epistemology even from my standpoint and absolutely idolatry from most theological standpoints.

Here, we are left with what most literary critics would call a “false binary.”  This is he manifestation of the want to categorize the universe along the lines of simple and simplistic oppositional camps and generalized opposing “types.”  This was an idea that wasn’t limited to the “modern” mind.  Buddha advised against even dealing with creation since it was fundamentally outside the realm of the knowable and may even be totally irrelevant both morally and spiritually.   Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians realize this and encourage typological readings as well as “historical ones.” The hermeneutic being, of course, the tradition of the Church fathers, which can be vastly over simplified as follows: God is the word (logos) that speaks, not merely the pages of some book. With the context of that speech through tradition and reason and the Holy Spirit, then those words are quite like reading a literal translation of a dead language–about 1/100 makes any real sense and anything can be deduced from anything else.

A specific church father seems of utmost value to quote—even if the later fundamentalism of Orthodoxy has many of his teachings declared heterodox. As Origen of Alexandria says in his On First Principles (here translated by George Lewis), “Scripture interweaves the imaginary with the historical, sometimes introducing what is utterly impossible, sometimes what is possible but never occurred . . . [The Word] has done the same with the Gospels and the writings of the Apostles; for not even they are purely historical, incidents which never occurred being interwoven in the ‘corporeal’ sense.”  What was true was beyond what was merely literal or possible.  The truth can be the mythological that evoked being—i.e. the ontologic experience invoked in myth as opposed to its fundamental literal and historical truth.

Funny how both sides of this debate seem to have forgotten this viewpoint. Ironically, secular Humanism is a split from Christianity’s Renaissance humanism, but oddly enough Christian Fundamentalism which, at first, seems to be a misreading of Martin Luther, but really stem from a sort of “objective factual” epistemology as the only valuable epistemology instead of narrative power. Both are reductionistic and resemble each other in their opposition more than they resemble any actual “alternatives” to the dominant paradigm.

The God’s MPD: On St. Gregory Palamas

The division of God’s energies from God’s essence has helped me to deal with how God the father could be both the distant Elohim, the “I who is,” which we cannot know and yet also be God who spoke to Abraham and Samuel directly. Even if one reads this as metaphor or as an “early” and unrecognized form of the Holy Spirit or the Son communicating, the Trinitarian view of God seems very hard to reconcile with the distance of God, the immensity, the complete a-physical and total physicality. Now, C. S. Lewis says that such contradictions do not make sense (being contradictions of natural language and not natural law and are thus nonsense), but I still see Lewis as trying to limit God as something understood by human reason. Not that God’s energies (his actions and the Holy Spirit) can’t be understood by reasonable means, it seems pretty clear that they can. But what is God is fairly well beyond us, according to Palamas.

Many secularists see this as a cop-out, but one may ask them can they understand the entirety of the universe or the unreason behind certain trains of thought, or even the grounds for ethics to have developed at all, without involving elaborate conspiracies of power, and often it is hard to answer.  The point is that the unknowable nature of God is not any proof of God.  To assume that, its Orwellian doublethink at its finest.

On Faith-related epistemology

The above arguments are not proof of God. Speaking as a logical positivist , which is how one should speak when dealing with science, God may be impossible to prove or disprove.

However, speaking from a logically positivistic point of view, it is impossible to prove that even matter exists beyond any claim of skepticism. Descartes imp can’t be positively disproven beyond a shadow of a doubt—it’s a game of proving that the world outside your perception of it is real. Without faith in the truth of our experience of the physical world, then there is little ground to deal with that physical world at all.

Now, this is not saying that “real” scientists have to have God to be scientists, but they must have “faith” in the scientific method and they may need something to ground that faith in. It is any easy thing for a theist to do; it’s easy for a non-theist to do if the said individual thinks the whole problem posed by Descartes is a false start.  Secular materialism is an extension of classical and Christian thoughts about epistemology that refutes one part of it—namely, the Christian metaphysics.

More Mirrors Broken: On Two cotemporary binaries; Modern, or Scientistic, and Post-Modern, or “relativistic”

Now, in terms of philosophy and epistemology (and metaphysics too), the dominant world views in European and North American culture seem to be the modernist (stemming from Voltaire and Descartes to, say, most Science department professors). The problem with modernism is that it says that a statement of near-absolute truth can be made by man without faith in anything. It claims to have answered skepticism.

This a semiotic/epistemological problem in that it assumes that a)the expression of truth can be a direct representation (instead of a metaphorical one) of the “truth that is” and b) it assumes that faith in methods is a justifiable faith and other forms of faith are not.

Its theological/moral problem is that it is hubristic, it sees things from “simple to complex” and as evolving. (My problem with evolution has nothing to do with “creation” vs. design vs. randomness since I do not thing that any of these questions can be refuted on empirical grounds and thus fail to meet ever a positivistic view of science, must less a skeptical one. It is a problem with the moral implication in terminology of “evolution.”  This has little to do with science and more to do with Victorian mythology of progress that the popularizing philosophers of evolution used to make Darwin accessible. Here, it is important to note, that it was Herbert Spencer and not Charles Darwin who coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest”).

I can say as if I was a Christian (or a theist in general) that since I have faith in God and God’s honesty, that I can trust metaphorical and empirical data since an just God would not deceive me by the standards of justice that I view as being rooted in that God’s very being. Now, that does create theodicy problems, but I am going to avoid that right now.

A Christian may have faith that there faculties are operating and Descartes perverse imp is not pulling the wool of their eyes, because they have the benefit of something beyond to ground their faith in reality on. Any nihilist or hard-line skeptic can attack the scientistic view just as easily as the Christian one because it avoids deeply addressing Descartes problem. This is ironic since Descartes central pre-occupation was a sort of apologetics for mathematics and natural science as separate from theology and natural philosophy.

Therefore I can agree with modernist science, but not with modernist justifications of that science. I can acknowledge that I do not “know” beyond any shadow of a doubt that God exists, but have faith that moves me beyond the obvious holes in empirical knowledge.  In fact, faith here is little to do with God, but faith in the faculties in which I know is crucial.

Post-modernity takes the skepticism inherent in modernism and uses it, much like I have above, to show that modernisms faith in improvement and absolute truth are not grounded in any truly empirical or skeptical claim. But where modernism confuses the truth of a thing with its expression, post-modernism confuses in ability to communicate directly with the non-existence of any truth.  A professor wants told me that language is our mark for what is real and if it is expressable, it has “reality.”  I find sort of ridiculous: the only positivist line applies here, “just because I can say ‘America has a monkey for a king,’ doesn’t make it true literally” (although it is a pretty funny metaphor).

If we must speak in religious metaphors, perhaps it is helpful to do so here: where modernity’s sin is pride, post-modernity’s sin is TOTAL faithlessness which renders almost all things inessential and vapid, including its own expression.