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"Getting Beyond the Narratives: An Open Letter to the Activist Community" is an essay written[1] by John Michael Greer in response to a book, "Globalize Liberation"[2]

The bio on Greer's blog describes him as "a widely read author, blogger, and astrologer whose work focuses on the overlaps between ecology, spirituality, and the future of industrial society". Greer also says that he comes to the issues discussed in the book from "the perspective of a practicing mage and initiate of several magical orders". However Greer (mostly) does not appeal to the supernatural; he writes:

I should probably take a moment to explain what I mean by magic and why it’s relevant to social change at all. Dion Fortune (Violet Firth Evans), one of the most important magical theorists of the twentieth century, defined magic as “the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will.” While magic as I understand it is more a craft than an art or a science, the basic principle holds. The medium of magic is consciousness — one’s own consciousness, that of other people, and (more controversially, at least within the worldview of modern industrial culture) that of other-than-human entities of various kinds. The tools of magic are will, imagination, and the innate structures of consciousness itself, constellated through formal patterns of symbol and ritual. The goals of magic are defined by the individual magician.

The relevance of all this to social change and society in general was pointed out powerfully by the late Ioan Culianu, one of the few significant modern scholars of magic who was also a competent mage. In his groundbreaking Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (1984) Culianu argued that modern advertising is a form of magic, and proposed that modern consumer societies can be seen as “magician states” in which social control is primarily maintained not by violence but by manipulation through magically charged images. It’s a crucial insight; when people treat, say, fizzy brown sugar water as a source of their identity and human value, their resemblance to fairy-tale characters under an enchantment isn’t accidental. They’re quite literally caught up in a spell.

Those who aren’t used to magic may find it easier to think of spells as stories. Quite a lot of magic, in fact, can be understood as storytelling. The mage uses symbol and ritual to tell a story, and makes it so spellbinding that the listeners come to believe that it’s real — and then make it real by their actions. Magical combat is a struggle between storytellers, in which each mage tries to define a common reality in terms of the story that best serves his or her purposes. The struggle between the global corporate system and the activist community, to build on Culianu’s insights, can be seen as a conflict of magicians telling opposing stories.

One obvious danger in magical combat is that of falling under the spell of the other mage’s story — but there’s also the subtler danger of falling under the spell of one’s own story, losing track of the fact that it’s a story rather than the raw undefined reality of human experience out of which stories are assembled. When that happens, the self-enchanted mage may not be able to let go of the story, even when it’s no longer relevant and another story would be more useful. As the old tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice points out, if you lose control of the magical forces you summon, you’re in trouble. Something of this sort seems to have happened in large parts of the progressive community.

Thus what Greer calls magic might also be thought of as a branch of psychology, which can be applied to effecting social change.

In his essay Greer discusses several phenomena, which he describes as spells, which he sees as relevant to attempts to effect social and political change. One example is the power of naming groups or organisations so that they become, not mere collections of people working more-or-less together, but beings in their own right, possibly villainous or heroic. Greer also identifies a pervasive narrative of villain, victim, and rescuer, for example evil corporation, some aspect of the environment, and heroic activists.

Greer's ideas seem similar to ideas expressed by activist writers such as George Monbiot and some of the findings of science communication.

Footnotes and references

  1. The essay is undated but seems to originate sometime before 29th May 2017 when the Internet Archive Wayback Machine made a copy of it. The book Globalize Liberation to which it is a response was published in 2004.
  2. Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World edited by David Solnit; Google books

    Globalize Liberation weaves together the experiences and insights of community organizers, direct action movements, and global justice struggles from North America, Europe, and Latin America. Thirty-three essays provide food for thought, examples of effective action, and practical tools for everyone to use. This book, the product of uprisings, hard-lived victories, and visions for the future, was created to articulate, popularize, and deepen the rebellious spirit of the new radicalism.

    WITH ESSAYS BY: Walden Bello, Chris Carlsson, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Van Jones, Ramsey Kanaan, Naomi Klein, George Lakey, Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez, Midnight Notes Collective, Cindy Milstein, Patrick Reinsborough, Starhawk, and the U'wa Traditional Authorities

    David Solnit was an organizer of the direct-action shutdown of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 and the shutdown of San Francisco's Financial District on March 20, 2003, the day after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He is the co-author with Aimee Allison of Army of None; Strategies to Counter Military Recruitment, End War, and Build a Better World and co-editor with Rebecca Solnit of The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle.