From Gods and Radicals By Rhyd Wildermuth
Seven years ago I found myself sitting in the passenger seat of my best friend’s truck, driving through the Olympic Peninsula in Northwest Washington State. We’d made many such trips, usually for camping on the Hoh river, where the two of us would sit next to a fire as the evening set, watching elk drink at the river’s edge as the sky above us exploded in stars.
This time though we were on our way to a small town south of the mountains for a Scottish music festival. The day was warm and delicious, our conversation easy. He’s the sort you can be silent with for hours and feel you’ve said more than enough, or talk with for hours and yet feel there’s always more to say. So I don’t remember if we were talking or being silent when it happened
We’ve all heard the saying, and some of us have experienced it. “Time slowed down” or “I saw my life flash before me,” both inadequate ways of describing a certain moment when our consciousness slips from its normal meandering dance through time and thought into a sudden, concrete, epic “now.” Our perception expands, seconds seems to stretch into hours, and each subtle movement we affect takes on a profound meaning as a crisis unfolds around us.
What he saw is what I saw, but I know he saw it more clearly than I. What he saw was a car in front of him misjudging passing distance and fated to hit an oncoming car. What he saw was an accident, a collision, a crisis, a few potential deaths. Without changing course, we would collide as well, his heavier vehicle compounding the damage first before the vehicles behind us impacted too.
In that moment of expanded time, I watched his reactions in awe. He didn’t react, he acted, acted as if he’d rehearsed this role and this scene countless times in his head, practiced each subtle movement for a grand performance. He didn’t just slow or break, he turned sharply, a manoeuvre which not only prevented us from impacting the collided vehicles but also simultaneously blocked all traffic in both directions. That action forced the cars behind us to brake rather than dare a last moment passing, and signaled to oncoming traffic they’d need to stop too, thus containing the calamity to only the cars involved and preventing more damage.
Time snapped back to normal just after. I stared, dumbfounded, in the passenger seat for almost a minute, during which time he’d completely disappeared. When I came back to my senses, I left the truck to sit on the side of the road and watched him, this incredible man who is my closest friend, already tending to the injured.
I speak to this friend often, and spoke to him again just a day ago. Back then he was a medic for a city ambulance service. Unsurprisingly, he now works as a crisis management professional for a large city government, tasked with a rather morbid role. His job is still to save lives, but in a roundabout way: he’s charged with figuring out where to put all the bodies.
Those of us who don’t work in emergency services or for government are ignorantly blessed, I guess you could say, with not having to think about some of the things that keeps a population safe. Even the most nihilist or accelerationist sorts probably don’t give much attention to what might happen if a civil uprising, terrorist attack, or global pandemic were to result in a sudden mound of corpses. But that’s okay, because that’s his job, not ours.
“I put in an order for 4000 body bags last week,” he told me yesterday. “And I spent most of my time calling universities to see how much cold storage they have in their anatomy labs.” His voice shook a little when he said this second part, and I could tell it was not from fear but from sadness. It’s a sad thing to think about where the bodies will go, because bodies are not just rotting things but are people. A few hundred could be stored in one lab, perhaps a few others just in bags in refrigerated rooms. A few hundred bodies. A few hundred people.
In any close friendship, you learn a lot about the world. From him, I’ve learned something about the world that I don’t think I would have learned elsewhere, which is who “really” runs the world. I don’t mean the leaders, the politicians, the bankers and CEO’s, the presidents, kings, illuminati, technocrats, or lizard people.
I mean the people like him.
As an anarchist, or more properly an Autonomous Marxist, I tend to see all governments as corrupt monstrosities which stifle life and brutalize the vulnerable. Maybe you see it this way too, and I’ve no interest in changing your mind because I’m not changing mine, either.
But while we’re great at dismissing any government’s claim that they are “legitimate” and “just” and seeing these as the lies they are, we’re not so good at picking apart some of the other things governments are. That is, in opposing governments we can find ourselves opposing certain things governments do that predate them.
As the global pandemic that is COVID-19 is the most present thing in everyone’s minds, it’s easiest to look there for where this problem arises. It’s become a kind of trope among “smart leftists” to interject certain conspiratorial analyses about governmental responses to the virus, particularly the authoritarian lockdowns in France, Italy, Germany, and China, as well as the much-less harsh (and extremely ineffective) measures in the United States and the United Kingdom. This is understandable: each of these governments have long histories of being pretty shitty, with almost no counter-evidence that they are sometimes not so shitty. Mandatory lockdowns, increased police on the streets, the shuttering of “non-essential” businesses, fines and even jail sentences for people who’ve been tested positive for the virus who refuse to self-quarantine: these are all really terrifying things for any leftist to consider, let alone see enacted in the cities in which they live.
It’s fully understandable that some leftists might suspect there’s something else going on here, some nefarious plan or conspiracy by governments to claim more power through over-inflating the danger of COVID-19 or implementing excessive controls on human movement and behavior. That’s what governments generally do, and so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were doing that now.
If the nation-state as it exists now were the final word on what a government does and is, we could all be forgiven for being dubious about these policies. But it isn’t: the nation state is a new form, as are the governments which sustain and manifest them. Before and outside the nation state, however, have been myriad other forms of organizing society, some definitely worse, some definitely better, but each of them different and competing with the Nation-State form.
Tribal governments in indigenous lands, for instance, comprise a completely different arrangement between the people who govern and the people who are governed from what we see in Liberal Democracies. Monarchies comprised another different arrangement, as have the countless forms of village and urban governance that have existed throughout the world and throughout humanity’s history.
To bring this back from the rather esoteric to the more concrete, we need only to note that what “governance” means is not an unchanging form. What powers a leader or group of leaders claims over the people, and what responsibilities a people expects from their leaders, varies throughout every form.
The example I like to use best is that of ancient Ireland, where kings were seen as sacred husbands to the land and servants both of the people and the gods. To show fealty, others in the aristocratic class sucked on the nipple of their king, and in some cases the king was expected to ritualistically consummate his marriage to the land through a female horse.
All of this is a far cry from our current electoral system, of course, but what’s of most interest here is what would happen when plague, pestilence, or famine would stalk the land. In such moments, it was the role of the druids (the sacred priest class), informed by the judgment of the people, to determine if the king had failed in his duties to the land. If they divined this was indeed the case, the king was sacrificed, often after his nipples were sliced from his chest, and his body was given back to the land by drowning in a bog.
Besides being a fascinating example of a different form of governance, this idea of sacred kingship shows us that health and well-being of a people has been tied to other forms of sovereignty long before the modern Nation State arose. The village elder, the tribal council, the priest, the shaman, the druid, the sacred king, the chieftain, and the emperor have all variously embodied this role, and each has had their particular powers to enact and responsibilities to fulfill.
The Nation State is no different, despite how much the Enlightenment and secularist theories have attempted to revise its sovereign role. Liberal Democracy has killed the kings and the tribal elders, but in consuming their hearts found itself taking on their sacred duties as the new sovereign. Be it Donald Trump or Emmanuel Macron, these are our kings and shamans now, and our question should not be “should they be confining people to their homes?” but rather, “who will be drowning them in a bog if they fail?”
This is perhaps where many leftists are missing what’s really happening here. The challenge that COVID-19—and more broadly all the other crises which will result from industrial over-reach—is a challenge to the sovereignty of the Nation-State. Liberal Democracy’s responses have thus far been varied in their effectiveness, but both best responses and the worst show that a major obligation of sovereignty—the health of the people—is one that none of these governments were prepared to assume.
Rather than wasting their sudden abundance of free time crafting conspiracy theories that suggest COVID-19 isn’t a real problem, or accusing other leftists of not being dubious enough of scientific claims, it seems leftists might better use their efforts to imagine how a more life-affirming sovereignty could embody this role. That is, how might a more de-centralised and locally-autonomous network of community councils respond to the next global pandemic? How would tribal groups or syndicalist webs of anarchist communes manage a health threat on a territorial, continental, or global scale?
How might locally-elected leaders or elders deal with the insistence of some individuals to act in a way that threatens entire communities? Could we imagine anarchists levying fines or imprisonment on someone who refuses to stay inside while they are contagious? Even after the smartest, the most impartial, and the most politically-correct scientists in a network of communes has verified that containment is the only way to save millions, what would a society based on self-determination do with the egoists among them asserting there’s no such danger?
Do we even know how we would respond? Or are we merely content to leave such things to our current sovereigns while posing critical and elite stances that they’re over-reacting?
I recounted my best friend’s experiences at the beginning of this essay for a reason, because it’s in both his work and life that I get glimpses of what our own responses could be. While he’s an incredible person with apparently “supernatural” skills when it comes to predicting and dealing with crises, he’s repeatedly made clear to me that he’s hardly unique. There are countless others like him, people who’ve devoted their minds and lives to learning how to mitigate disasters and manage catastrophes in such a way that as few people as possible suffer. Some see it as their sacred role, others just merely fell into it, and still others just “geek out” on such things, deriving constant delight from that sort of work.
While he’s also a leftist and though there are many like him, many also identify with other politics or none at all. More often than not, they’re working in governments, because governments in our modern Liberal Democratic capitalist nightmare have taken upon themselves the sacred role of responsibility for the health and well-being of people. And while those governments fail repeatedly, when they don’t fail completely or even sometimes also succeed, that happens only account of people like him. Scientists who warned early that COVID-19 would quickly overwhelm the health systems of most nations, doctors and nurses who early on begged local officials to ask people to stay home, and people like him noticing that the city he works for didn’t have enough storage space for the predicted amount of corpses—these are the people who show us now what that sovereign role could look like in a different kind of society.
In most cases, it’s been these people who have convinced the governments of the world to act like sovereigns, rather than those governments voluntarily protecting the people they rule. While leftists craft ridiculous conspiracy theories about banking cabals or 5G, some people are literally conspiring to keep us alive. And I think that, if our leftism is to be worth anything, we owe them and ourselves the kind of world and governance that will let them succeed.