Saturday, 26 July 2014

A Note on the Heretical & the Political

In the last posting, I referred in passing to Versluis' The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism (2008) and we should dwell a little on its insights.

By taking the most extreme form of the heretical (from a post-Nicaean standpoint), that point where sexuality and spirituality commingle, he highlights what it is that, in practice, caused the authorities to engage in murder and torture, to destroy people whose role in society was otherwise relatively marginal.

Of course, there were moments when perhaps heresy might actually have overturned established order but these are very rare - in the confusion leading up to the Council of Nicaea perhaps, in the seizure of tracts of Southern France during the period of the Cathars, in the marginal lands where competing Christianities, Judaism and Islam fought for dominance.

But, for most of history right up until the fundamentalist onslaught on different sexualities across the world today, the amount of effort placed by authority in extirpating heretics is analogous only to that of homeland security loons in dealing with 'terrorists' and political dissidents and communist purgation.

When a real threat appeared, as in the case of Cathars, the Church had no compunction in turning genocidal. From whence does this appalling fear of what hurts no other derive?

Of course, there may be psycho-sexual motives behind all this. After all, many conventional religious were rutting away like mad despite their claims to celibacy. But there are also cultural and sociological reasons that are worth considering as having parallels even today.

Buddhism and left hand path Hinduism did construct a form of accomodation between sexuality and 'spirituality' but usually only on very exploitative terms towards minors. I have covered this in a review of Faure's Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality elsewhere. The West proved much more rigid.

First, the dissidents actively rejected Church bureaucracy and hierarchy. In so doing, they implicitly (though there is no real evidence of any explicit intention) rejected the alliance between Church and the magisterium.

The threat of dissent was political - secular authority might well do to conventional catholicism what the Catholic Church had done to paganism viz. stuff it to cut a deal. Any rival operations had to be cut out of the game as ruthlessly as Al Capone wanted Bugs Moran dealt with.

Since condemnation of pagan sexuality was central to the Church's claim that only it could restore order in the febrile atmosphere in and following the third century AD, then any bunch of dissidents who had an alternative plan involving the maintenance of order through expression of that same suppressed sexuality could be a material threat to its institutional power.

Second, they embraced the 'natural' (meaning what men do naturally and the wildness of territory beyond the reach of the bureaucracy of the day). This too had political implications. The christian, like the communist and the late-imperial victorian, model was totalitarian and this ultimately meant it must be about sex.

It was no accident that the members of a Gnostic sect were referred to as being 'brigands' (though they stole from no-one) and that the vicious polemicist Clement of Alexandria declined to give further details of the beliefs of Carpocrates lest he 'oufit a pirate ship'.

They were literally 'outlaws' ... or 'terrorists' perhaps. But since they were not a threat to property (the main concern of secular authority), what was the brigandage and piracy directed at?

Why, self-evidently, a threat that would 'thieve' ideological control from the aggressive elite group, the spiritual New Labour-like coup d'esprit of the Catholic intellectual leadership based on a class of priests and bishops who did not care for another round of martydoms.

Like Bolsheviks in 1918, the struggle was won and the wanderings and exiles must now cease. They had gambled at the table and won and were not going to risk their winnings again.

Third, the dissidents accepted the spiritual equality of women, not just as able to attain 'gnosis' through the intermediation of priests but as direct and equal communicants with the divine.

Note that this is not the rivalling of some mythic patriarchy with some countervailing matriarchy as some more dim-witted modern feminists have asserted but a far more profound sense of anti-authoritian 'gnosis'. It was not act an act of feminism but of personism or of autonomism within a community of the like-minded.

The essence of the rebellion against the Church was individualist and so egalitarian in a wholly different way from the slave-religion of the Catholic Church which treated all souls as equal under its leadership, much like the Party in the Soviet Union.

Political and spritual universalisms always contain the seeds of totalitarian social terror as we see today in the universalism of a degenerate liberal enlightenment.

Finally, the heretics' antinomianism, not libertinism but that sense that a 'gnosis' had created an internal moral authority that was higher than any law or regulation dictated from above by Church or State - or indeed community, presented a bridge over which the Church could march its ideological troops into the secular castle and demand action and thereby assert its ability to 'cut deals'.

After all, the alliance between Church and magisterium was always contingent on delivery of order at low cost through ideology (as the Lutheran revolt was to show in its relation to peasant revolts). The communism, terrorism and heresy of the Munster Anabaptists was a 'gift from heaven' in that respect.

The ideological brigandage was of no intrinsic concern to property (since most of these mystics most of the time were rarely communistic in the expropriatory sense) and European aristocratic society was often perfectly happy with strong women in positions of influence and power ...

... no, the secret to the murder and torture which, if the secular authorities did not do themselves then they permitted to be done on their territory despite public order risks, came down to the shared interest of both Church and property in holding down the individual and ensuring that he or she remained unthreatening and submissive.

It was the antinomianism that did for the the heretics of the past much as it does for today's heretics. The relationship between sexual mysticism and mainstream culture is thus highly political and parallels the relationship between radical political dissent, radical sexual freedom and the State today.

The modern political dissenter rejects the self-serving structures of liberal constitutionalism, operates outside the institutional structures of the elite and is egalitarian across gender and class but none of this is important when set against his or her growing 'antinomian' tendency - against the possibility that the State no longer has 'legitimacy', the right to make and enforce laws. And resentment of bad laws is growing ...

It is the crisis of our time now that anyone can be a sexual mystic without a knock on the door at five in the morning from a Dominican friar - but that economic failure, uncertainty, unending apparently inexplicable and murderous small wars and loss of identity are creating a potent brew in which the political dissident is always going to be one sentence from being classed a 'terrorist' ...

... and always at the edge of things is the system's longing for some all-encompassing ideology that will set boundaries. In the West, it is a manipulative NGO-led universalism that is now required to clean up the mess left by globalisation and it is this ideology that is discovering sexuality as a problem and not an opportunity.

Friday, 25 July 2014

The 'Mysterium' in the Post-Modern World

The 'mysterium' - that about which we must, ultimately, be silent but which always has some indirect expression in feeling, performance and, most imperfectly, thought and language - will never go away so long as human beings exist as human beings and not as reasoning machines.

This is not to say that the 'mysterium' is present in all lives. As Kierkegaard brilliantly pointed out in his The Sickness Unto Death, most people most of the time repress or suppress it because it is a cause of deep anxiety and even of despair.

For most people, and for most of the time, there is no means, whether through temperament, capability or social context, to engage and struggle with it successfully or with profit. The 'mysterium' is present as a lack or as an avoidance strategy.

It has to be said that the average human being has every right not to put themselves through the wringer if there is no inward drive for transcendence or any social value in transcendence.

On the contrary, condemnation of those who avoid mystery and strangeness is cruel, arrogant and stupid - it is for individuals to decide and not others. There is no special virtu in the transcendent or the mysterious ... far from it. It is just another mode of being, one amongst very many.

But for those who are forced into engagement with the 'mysterium', it is not the case that it has a fixed form which expresses itself identically throughout all history and amongst all peoples.

The core experience of it is probably standard issue but this core experience is so limited in scope that there is no space for those claims of an essential 'primordial tradition' much loved by cultural conservatives. This is an explanation after the fact. Traditionalism evades the rawness of mystery.

The mysterium can be best be characterised in its active form as a felt perception of the integration of subject (the observing mind that is unique to itself) with object (whatever is out there beyond the self).

It is perhaps close to Jung's individuation but momentary, a stage on the way rather than a final resolution unless something like the enlightenment promised by Samadhi is achieved which strikes this writer as little more than embracing the death instinct. Accessing the mysterium should be for something other than itself.

Because the self is a nest of perceptions, the centrality of perception in the process of integration means that the experience is paradoxically both true and illusory simultaneously - true to the self (which despite the post-moderns does exist as a felt reality) but a matter of utter meaninglessness to the world.

Neither we (as in the post-moderns) nor the world (as with the Eastern faiths) are illusory, we are simply incommensurate so that it is the lack of cohesion that creates the confusion. The desire to merge both into a higher reality is a failure to understand what we are as evolved animals.

This is what has always been confused as a unification with the divine - because what is 'out there' (the thing that is the object) has been assumed, without evidence, to be aware of the process of our observing, part of us in terms of consciousness. The desire that this be so becomes an obsession with some.

The desire to have the object become subjectified - subjectification - is far more an anti-human process than the much criticised but more true to life process of objectification. Objectification is somehow sinful and yet to be human is to objectify to survive.

This failure to detach the subject from the object by the very nature of the experience - the illusion of integration may be an illusion in relation to matter but can be a central transformative experience of self - has resulted in historical waves of culturally contingent interpretations of the mysterium.

A pagan sensibility, for example, might externalise the 'other' as nature or the gods - a relationship to the mystery of the material world which is then imbued with a knowing if not necessarily amenable divinity.

We see a weak version of this type of transcendental thinking re-emerging in the wake of the failure of the concept of God to meet modern mystery needs as a transposition of 'nature' onto the planet and the earth in an unsophisticated environmentalism.

It is the 'other' to which we must submit - the unknowable mystery becomes our master rather than simply what it is, a thing that is unknowable on which we can write our own script.

Christian sensibility shifted the 'mysterium' not only towards a mythic narrative of salvation through sacrifice but away from the engagement of mind with the imperfectly known world of matter. Christianity moved the mysterium radically away from the relationship between mind with matter as a mystery in itself.

It is the rediscovery of this latter mystery that would later inspire the atheist existentialists who sought to re-start philosophy from Socrates' pre-Platonic initial questioning. The post-pagan Christian sensibility took the transcendent illusion so seriously that it made it socially real and useful and evaded the truth with more invention.

The socialisation of transcendence, expressed in a war not only on gnosticism but on all forms of independent interpretation of transcendent experience, became the dominant authoritarian and even totalitarian mode of Western culture from the Constantinian settlement onwards.

Even today, as a mental model, this socialisation and weakening of transcendence survives not only as religion but as the cack-handed compliment paid to it by all-inclusive radical political philosophies, including the radical positivist liberalism that is wracking the world today.

The current approach to the mysterium is thus a confused and, fortunately for most of us, pluralist attempt to make sense of the relationship of mind to the 'other' on terms in which the 'other' is privileged as having, if not always a mind, some meaning that operates as if it was mind.

This is so because the mysterium has now been thoroughly socialised - which is absurd because only individuals and not societies have minds that can relate to matter in a transcendent and fully experiential way.

Transcendence has lost the quality of being enabled by a framework that permits the space for transcendence rather than of offering models of transcendence to which we are expected to conform.

The re-seizure of a direct relationship between the individual mind and existence began in both America and Europe in the nineteenth century in small pockets but it only found critical mass in conservative intellectual circles in the early twentieth century in Europe and then in radical social circles in California at mid-century.

Since then, this antinomian and complex movement of revolt against the socialisation and weakening of transcendence has exploded across Western culture.

Moreover, it appeared in forms so disorganised and anarchic that it had no character that might permit it to be borrowed or adapted to ensure order for elites as Constantine managed to purloin the Christian model from 313 AD. It defies socialisation and order. And yet its forms and not its core soon became appropriated by essentialists again - whether in neo-fascist, pseudo-leftist or new age forms.

Fascist elements flirted with the European wave and the American wave ended up losing itself in the irrational exuberance of an inchoate liberalism but the phenonenon persisted as challenge to the prevailing order and its scepticism as to essences and system, its chaos, now vaccinates us through our new media.

This disorder permits multiple models for transcendence, of engagement with the mysterium, that allow a person to adopt anything of value to them including 'the reality of the illusion'.

The 'reality of the illusion' is when the transcendent experience really does seem to connect with something 'out there' that has a mind that connects through the experience with the mind of the subject. This is when the insane subjectivation of reality is chosen as a divine madness for a transformative gain.

Nevertheless, those who would be able transcendentally to connect that part of the mind that is subject (self) with inner object (the unknown self) and acquire it as part of the subject remain a minority and a confused minority at that.

The modern revolution in individualist transcendentalism arose from a psychologism that was based on healing and on science but perhaps lost its appeal because it still placed gnosis in the hands of leaders, priests, intellectuals and gurus.

The phenonenon of Osho tells us all we need to know about the absurdity of this world - a philosophy of individual transcendence based on cultic paranoia and the leadership principle. Set at sea, most minds tend to the pseudo-liberation of a hidden social fascism. They cannot let go of meaning.

It is true that those who take a severe psychological perspective on subject/object relations and accept an intellectual model for self-investigation seem doomed to take much longer over their own transformation than those who experience the instant transcendent moment. So how can this be squared?

How can one retain an Apollonian rational scepticism about one's situation yet capture Dionysiac excess and madness to reboot the mind into creating a world closer to the actual hidden nature, the occult self, which is constrained by the social and by history?

A transformative power may lie in the mind adopting an illusory model of existence to effect a transformation but then abandoning the illusion once the transformation has taken place. Dionysius trumps Apollo and then wends his drunken way far from the subject when he has done his job ...

Believers in absurdities - God, the divine, the planet, the nation and even history - with their opportunities for a 'Pauline moment' of revelation are not going to go away. The risk always remains that their mad enthusiasms may result in the socialisation of one illusion over others and a return to the intellectual dark ages.

On the other hand, without a challenge to the inherited models designed for adequate socialisation, personal transformation strategies are likely to wallow around waiting for a transformative moment that cannot come because the individual is not permitted a framework for independent investigation and experimentation.

Space is needed for the 'dark night of the soul', risk, transgression and transcendence. What a modern mystery school might do, in this 'revelation', is return to pre-Augustinian Western roots as much as it embraces continental philosophy, returning humanity to Socrates to invent a defiant purpose in the face of science.

This is, of course, what Nietzsche and Heidegger would like but we might need effective methodologies for individual or small group transformation where the social framework that is required is one of ensuring that antinomianism does not descend into cultishness and exploitation.

Such 'technique' may lie embedded in European culture beneath the now crumbling facade of ascetic and historicist Catholic orthodoxy. But are these and other traditions not distractions if we continue to accept their false essentialist premises? The collapse of lineage in thought may not be such a bad thing.

Eastern spiritual lineages may offer a thousand paths but they may also have become sclerotic in their traditional language of spirit so that we have the comical absurdities of exported sanskrit, lazy states of Aum-ness or the importation of Tantra as sexual partnership guidance without any sense of the real struggle that the transcendental experience requires.

The thousand flowers of the broken Western tradition still point to freedom not only of choice but from tradition so that each individual can explore to the depth that they require to achieve individuation rather than dabble in an expected expression of the transcendent according to pre-ordained religious forms.

As Arthur Versluis points out, Western mystical thinking has depended on the constant rediscovery of banned or suppressed texts. These then have to be understood out of original context in order to be made useful. Yet the text is the burden of the West as well as the reason for its relative energy.

When a text is the standard for society - whether the American Constitution, the Bible or the Communist Manifesto - it suppresses free, innovative and creative thought but where a text is a choice, then it can be the trigger for new thinking to meet new conditions. But true freedom is abandoning the text altogether.

Both Kierkegaard and Bohme were wrong about God and meaning but they and others opened the door that enabled us to question the socialisation and formalisation of meaning by society rather than by ourselves in a direct relationship to it. But they also had to be jettisoned to progress.

We should command, control and throw away in a struggle against all forms of traditionalism and conservatism. We must know our enemy - ancient texts and old ideas - but learn how to unlearn them when they become useless as working tools.

From this perspective, the modern mysterium permits paganic science its due as the basis of understanding without meaning but it restores meaning to the individual as the master of science and history, of science and history as mere tools, and the ability to challenge one's own socialisation by others.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Rethinking Sexual Mysticism ...

The association of a claimed spiritual impulse with sexuality is a mystery in two senses - it is a mystery in the religious sense that it is present but inexplicable and it is a mystery in a second sense that most people just do not get that it is possible.

This is not just because most people in the West have grown up within a cultural tradition that firmly separates spirit (or mind at its most transcendent) from matter (or body at its most functional).

Many Westerners understand body as brute and often inconvenient matter but they are now unsure whether spirit exists except as illusion, a derangement of the neurons.

To cope with the very concept of sexual mysticism or of a sexual spirituality requires that we struggle with two very different ways of seeing.

There is the personal privileging of sexuality as a means of expression and that process by which 'transcendence', the experience of existing beyond the immediate self, has meaning in and of itself. Not everyone gets either of these concepts, let alone their integration.

The privileging of sexuality is deeply counter-cultural because that privileging is wholly associated with simple gratification of desire, with the sin of lust. A 'swinger' is more comprehensible to most people than a sexual mystic because the former are simply acting out a common desire without restraint.

Most people sit on a continuum between a-sexuality and radical desire that has little room for the numinous.

On the other hand, transcendence is also problematic because it is associated with external forces, mostly God but often today with a more vague sense of the divine or perhaps of some essential reality beyond reality.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I position transcendence as a materially-based experience that is valid in itself (as experience) but not validly described outside the experience except in materialist terms. This does not make the experience invalid, merely additional explanations invalid.

Whatever God, the divine or reality beyond reality are to individuals, they are set apart from matter for most people and so, sex being associated with desire that is seen as 'material', they are not seen as sexual. Indeed, the sexual may be so associated with matter that it becomes associated with 'dirt'.

The sexual mystic is a liminal figure, an absurd figure in many people's eyes, even more so than the 'mulatto', the bisexual and the transgender have been in the past - and all those other figures in society who partake of both or neither of the binary components of our conventional thought.

Black/white, light/dark. good/bad. But these figures between the boundaries are not liminal at all, They are at the point of convergence of binaries. They represent ambiguity. Either/or. Neither/nor. Most people are uncomfortable with ambiguity. Yet dealing with ambiguity is central to individuation.

Why the discomfort? Because ambiguity is often the first step to anxiety and anxiety is the first step to coming-to-terms with the actually existing human condition. For some of the highly sexualised, the introduction of the numinous confuses things - why add obfuscation to a 'natural' act?

There is no reason why the swinger is necessarily a psychopath in this. Their unspiritual sexuality is consensual and many swingers will have strongly monogamous relationships when it comes to affection and property. There is no intrinsic superiority in the numinous.

For the highly spiritualised on the other hand, the sexual is just so, well, 'dirty' - literally, in the exchange of body fluids and the mess - and deriving from the lack of loss of self in the god-head or in the eternal because of the association of the act with the body and the material .

Even where texts have not demanded that a person treat sexuality as a highly regulated and non-spontaneous activity, the psychology of formal religion appears to demand that sex be avoided as sin or distraction.

Yet, for a small minority, the linkage between the sexual and the mystical is logical and healthy. In some personalities, the experience of orgasm excites mental visions of the eternal, the infinite and the numinous.

The entire experience of sex is, to such persons, deeply magical or spiritual (the terms are not quite interchangeable).

The real puzzlement to these people is why an innocent, private, consensual and deeply personal association of the link between sex and the divine is the cause of so much fear, anxiety, horror and oppression in the majority.

But I must go back to being honest here. I accept the experience of the transcendent but I do not accept the experience of the divine as something taking place beyond the mind of the subject.

Those who have experienced intense transcendence through religious experience, drugs or sex - or even contemplation of art or nature - can find the experience so overwhelming that all reason flees. The experience is embraced as true-in-itself, as an absolute.

There is no arguing with such persons - nor are they wrong in their noble illusions. The experience is true because it 'is'. Sex, like drugs, is highly specific, though, in giving us a path way from experience to this felt illusory (objectively) but real (subjectively) transcendence.

Both involve chemical transformations within the body, whether instigated by the introduction of chemicals or through forcing chemical change within the body through (say) touch ... but the essence of the matter is the same, the triggering of transcendence through radical chemical and neuron adaptation.

The objection of the religious and post-religious secular community to sex and drugs is 'moral' on the spurious basis that no external force other than, successively, God's grace or pure reason should intervene between man and the transcendent.

This is the gap, however, into which priests and intellectuals have insinuated themselves. But God is now either dead or very personal indeed to post-modern man. Reason is on its last legs as adequate explanation for our conditions of existence.

This is not to say that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll should be put in their place (far from it - these are often evasions) but only that there is a hole which people are having to fill without paternal or maternal guidance and each person will have their own right way of filling it.

This raises many issues of 'value' that can be boiled down to the simple unconscious acceptance of a person as either an existential being (experiencing things as a material being in relation to the world) or essential (attaining knowledge of hidden things in the world that actually exist 'out there').

This is the occult of the inner soul in conceptual competition with the occult of the universe.

Hitherto all discussion of sexuality in a spiritual context has centred either on the impossibility of sexuality or narcotics (as opposed to reason or ascetic discipline) permitting access to the divine or, alternatively, of sexuality and narcotics being the most natural pathway to a divinity that exists above and beyond humanity.

In other words, both the majority of believers who deny a link between sex and spirit and those few who assert a direct link between the two share an assumption that there is 'something out there' which rejects or accepts the gift of sex.

But once the divine is lost conceptually in a secular society (as it has largely been in ours), the only sex that is left is the sex that is no longer denied (as it is by the deniers of the link) but which also has no transcendent quality.

From this point on, it is just, more or less, pleasure - unpleasant, erotic, brute, playful or whatever - but just pleasure without meaning except, at best, as personal bonding.

This last statement might shock but most people in the modern world can now only see sex as a matter of brute pleasure or personal bonding. This leads us to the dichotomous cultural relationship between sex as commodity and sex as personal development and as a relationship tool.

This clearly creates its own binary structure of dark and light, good and evil, with advocates on both sides.

Perhaps we might now re-think this in the light of science and of the fact of sexual mysticism in the past (such as that of the Greek mystery tradition and Gnosticism) by suggesting that, while the sex of pleasure and of commodification and the sex of bonding are real phenomena, there may be a third phenomenon of sexuality as felt transcendence that requires no God or divinity at all.

Such an existentialist sexuality is liminal and so disturbing by its nature. It exists not just to release tension or excite (as in the pleasure model) nor is it designed to be 'social', to build bonds.

It might just as well exist as an individual act of transcendence with participants who share the same ends and who replace the divine as external with the divine as internal, as an inner transformative power.

This, of course, relates to spiritual alchemy. We might argue that the alchemical, a chemical process within the body, was falsely related to the external and to a ladder of perfection.

An existential sexual mysticism might be interested not in 'rising' towards divinity but in finding moments of Dionysiac purity which are internally transformative within existing reality.

Instead of union with God or the external divine, the sexual process would now be directed at individuation, a more Jungian concept, but one which is not merely imagined but is actuated.

And not only through sexuality - we have mentioned sex and drugs but these are of no greater consequence than art, higher mathematics, ritual and performance, asceticism, deep meditation or long walks!

There is no intent here to throw the baby of technique out with the bathwater of essentialism - for, if we think long and hard about it, it becomes clear that, though the sexual mystics of the past were unable to separate the experience from the theory, their methods were often finely tuned towards achieving the actuality of a felt transcendence.

We can envisage a Western sexual mysticism closer to the mentality of the Taoists or the more radical Tantrics, by which transcendence in order to effect transformation and individuation becomes a form of science in its own right.

Even symbolic notions such as the alchemical idea of 'as above so below' or that of archetypes, as developed by Jung, can be used in a scientific way, much like higher mathematics, to transmute the leaden life of conformity and easy acceptance of a constructed social reality into a dynamic and revolutionary critique of the 'given', far more focused than the cynicism of the Chaos Magicians.

Needless to say, such thoughts will disturb those who really do believe that there is a divine 'out there' instead of inside ourselves. It will also unnerve those who cannot think in these terms at all but only in terms of the laws of physics.

Those who are interested in neither God nor science but only in pleasure will be equally puzzled at why anyone should be mad enough (in their eyes) to add bells and whistles. But these 'platonists', positivists and hedonists are not being asked to become like the new alchemists.

They are merely being asked to be more tolerant of a different way of seeing than their ancestors have been.

In the past,control, repression, contempt or ridicule have been the natural modes of society towards all three styles of approaching sexuality, all tending to indicate fear and anxiety rather than understanding.

To conclude, it is likely that the 'sexual mystic impulse', a component of what might be the 'new alchemy', is always going to be for the few - but not because the few want to keep it to themselves but because the many simply cannot get sexuality as anything more than pleasure and power.

There is nothing elitist about this new alchemy. On the contrary, it is for anyone who wants it. To remove the pleasure and the power of sexuality from the social, from constructed social reality, and return it to individuals as individuals in direct communion with each other, may be the most profoundly revolutionary act of our time.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Empires & Resistance

Around 425 BC, Athenian imperialism turned on the small city-state of Melos. The Melians wished to stay neutral but this was not good enough for the leading 'democracy' of the day fighting its own 'evil imperial adversary' Sparta.

The Melians decided to resist despite the superior military resources of the Athenians. This is what they said: " ... to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect ..."

The Melians relied on action as 'hope' but not much better than that. The sentiment is one familiar to those who have studied the Amerindian resistance to the white settlers - an appeal to the essential rightness of their world because it has always been so but awareness deep down of the futility of it all.

Needless to say, there were no gods to trust in and they were crushed. For their resistance, despite fighting bravely, the men were all slaughtered and the women and children were all enslaved. Thus, the glorious conduct of a democracy that has acted as beacon for the modern world's sentimental liberals.

The Athenians had serious ideas about freedom and justice, of course, but they were ideas only for themselves or to be imposed on others for their own ultimate convenience - an attitude of mind familiar to us today. Imperialists can never leave things alone. They must meddle.

Putting Ideas into Rebel's Mouths

Half a millennium later, the Roman historian Tacitus almost certainly created the Calgacus who may or may not have been a genuine Celtic chieftain defeated by the Roman Empire around 80-83AD when Rome was busy thieving the British Isles from its indigenous peoples.

Tacitus 'invents' or reports a statement of resistance to imperialism that stands alongside those that emerged later from North American indigenous tribes.

"To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain's glory has up to this time been a defence ... there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission

"Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches."

And then these famous lines: "To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire: they make a desert and call it peace."  I suppose, if anyone asks, this provides the basis for a reasonable answer to the question of what the Romans did for us ...

You may compare this again to another alleged speech, this time of Hatuey, Chief of the Tainos, who led the guerrilla resistance against the Spanish in what was to become Cuba and who was captured and burned alive at the stake in 1511:

"Here is the God the Spaniards worship ... They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of Peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. 

"They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they steal our belongings, seduce our women, rape our daughters. Incapable of matching our courage in battle, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break."

Again, the speech strikes one as constructed for literary purposes by the conquerors but the sentiments were inspiring to Cuban revolutionaries as perhaps one day what Calgacus said might inspire the people of Britain in their struggle against European bureaucracy.

Still, they could be seen as a bit of a futile whine from the losers in life's race if one was so inclined.

And, of course, the 'real' savages of the Celtic North and North America were not averse to a bit of tribal violence, rapine and thievery against their weaker tribal neighbours (the Tainos no doubt warred with the Caribs as the Wichita with the Comanches). Nor did Melos' wealth come without slaves.

But for Hatuey's God, read Calgacus' Rome and the iron horse is an analogue to the superior organisation of the Romans or the Athenians but what the writers really see through is the use of ideology as cover for rapine.

For the savages, thuggery is just what they do, for us civilised ones, it has to be justified.

In the first case, pagan 'virtue' is implicit rather than stated but, in the second, the reference to the God of the Christians is explicit. Ideology is part of the machinery of theft. The violence and brutality, as each ages passes, gets cloaked in more layers of essentialist guff.

At least in these cases, some people within the imperial systems knew that bad things were being done in the name of the good and were prepared to ask questions but, whether Roman bureaucrats or Spanish monks, the critique is always elliptical.

Tacitus and our anonymous Hispanic chronicler have the resigned air of the fearful intellectual within the system who wishes the world could be different and then goes back to his laden table. We know the type - the op ed columns of our contemporary media are filled with such sentimentalists.

Slave Revolts

But empires are not only about the business of acquiring land and agricultural and mineral resources, they are also about acquiring labour resources.

Globalisation today is about the re-allocation of labour resources for the profit of the imperiums of our day as much as capture of slaves by armed force has been the central dynamic of past empires. In the past, this meant a far more overt commitment to slavery. But not now.

Today, empire is defined by its enabling of free movement. The defining of slavery has become the cleverly constructed differentiator of 'good' and 'bad' imperialism ever since British evangelicals took the moral high ground and made use of the British Navy to sink slavers. If only it were all so simple.

Periodically, the enslaved found a rare opportunity to resist on their terms and to 'make themselves'. Between 73 and 71BC, a major slave revolt took place within the Roman Empire led by a former gladiator of now legendary status, the Thracian former soldier Spartacus.

The revolt was put down bloodily. Despite the claims of Hollywood, Spartacus probably died in battle rather than on the cross. He should not be over-romanticised - his probable interest was to grab the spoils of Italy for a new ruling order rather than anything truly liberatory.

According to the Roman historians, he mounted one of the earliest prison break-outs in surviving history with 70 others from the slave-training school in Capua. From this perspective, whatever his motives, he can count as a figure of resistance to the Man or as a 'most wanted' criminal to taste.

Initially, he was little more than a brigand but his mere presence on and around Mount Vesuvius drew others to him and he proved a good leader of men. Local police actions were easily defeated.

A second, more determined, police effort was still underprepared, not taking this brigand seriously enough, and a Roman General (the Chief Constable, if you like) was humiliatingly lucky to escape capture.

But, in the end, when the system wants to crush you and there is no one at home base with the authority to demur, you will be crushed. And so he was.

We might compare this with the slave uprising of Ali Bin Muhammad, one of a series of such revolts of East African slaves around Basra under the Abbasids between 869 and 883 AD.

Ali was captured and executed in 881 but such revolts could involve up to 500,000 slaves, indicating the degree to which the Arab Abbasids depended as much on stolen human labour as the Romans - and as much as did the foundation of the British Empire for that matter.

The Abbasids, often praised, like the Romans, for their cultural achievements, drew in East African blacks into the marshlands in order to reclaim them for agriculture and feed their teeming Baghdad. These are the same territories that Saddam Hussein granted to his top officers for services rendered.

As with Spartacus, Ali appeared out of nowhere and began liberating slaves in batches ranging from 50 to 500 until he had accumulated a formidable force that was promised property (since many uprooted slaves might not be enamoured of a freedom that was hunger).

Nor was he a liberationist in the modern sense for what he promised the slaves was - their own slaves, of course.

He positioned himself (according to the legend) as a servant of Allah and was allegedly merciful to the slave traders and owners insofar as he spared their lives and freed them but only after a thorough beating from which some might well not have survived.

Today, Spartacus and Ali whose moral compasses were very limited might certainly be regarded as criminals and terrorists. The system that enslaved them in the first place made the law and revolt against that system became the crime. Again, a familiar ideological stance today.

Perhaps America's jails are holding places for psychopaths but they may also be holding places for free men enslaved when the 'crimes' are social constructs. Who is it that decides that trading in alcohol in one decade and drugs in another or engaging in consensual sex trades between equals is a 'crime'?

The last word on slave revolts come from Korea and three hundred years later, showing the ubiquity of slavery in space and time - and that what has existed once may exist again. This is from Manjok's slave rebellion which was planned but discovered and Manjok was killed - murdered, we might say.

He is said to have said:

"Are generals and ministers born to these glories? No! For when the time is auspicious anyone can hold such office. Why then should we work ourselves to the bone and suffer under the whip? ... If each hereditary slave kills his master and burns records of his status, thus ending the system of hereditary slavery in our country, then each of us will be able to become a minister or a general."

The Lessons For Today

There was no justice for the Melians, the Celts or the Tainos while the leaders of slave and peasant revolts invariably died alongside their many followers.

The 'iron' of superior organisation and technology - the sheer inertia of the few having a stake in an unfair society that gave them the resources for domination - would overwhelm any resistance to expansion or internal revolt from exploitation.

The lesson would appear to be that there is no hope in revolt under such conditions unless you just want to make a point and then die - or are just so desperate that even the risk of death is better than servility. Perhaps this lies at the heart of the suicide bomber's decision..

The only chance for the common man in the past was to tie yourself to a warlord arising on the margins of a flailing empire and hope that he wins his battles and becomes secure on his territory so that you can gain land - and slaves - of your own.

Or perhaps you could join a legion or regiment and fight the fuzzy-wuzzies for a small slice of the action ... and is this not the set of choices (revolt, warlordism or becoming an agent of state force) that is all that is left for many men in a world without economic security or personal respect.

Perhaps this is why the barbarian warlord and the insurgent are often marginally more attractive, for all their stupidities and barbarities, than the systematic exploitation of millions and then billions through a system that serves the few and not the many and then engages the many amongst its few, its own working people, in an elaborate ideological cover-up to ensure the machinery of exploitation.

There was always a link between expansion and exploitation because, then as now, servile labour could be transported across seas to keep down the price of indigenous labour and excess human production at home could be siphoned off to work the land stolen from those defeated in battle.

A strange dynamic of economic growth through atrocity built the modern world. This dynamic in its most brutal form has, of course, ended with the end of the frontier. Or has the frontier closed after all? Perhaps we have been seduced by an American internal narrative and not seen the frontiers of today.

Nearly all land has been captured for the imperial market system in theory and that which has not belongs to somewhat authoritarian states of resistance or what are called 'failed' but which might equally be called 'free' if violent, anarchic and communitarianly oppressive states.

Yet there are many 'frontiers' of asymmetry emerging once again as globalisation fails to deliver economic prosperity at the speed required to match mass aspirations and expectations - there are migration frontiers, market frontiers, frontiers where traditionalism resists commodification.

The revolution in the means of production that originated from the unique properties of the slave-based British Empire not merely enabled slavery to be replaced with 'free' labour but scored that empire an ideological lead in terms of its claims about freedom and democracy.

But these changes saw scarcely a jot of difference to the actual holding of wealth in terms of its proportions between mass and elite. It worked because the total amount of wealth rose and spread for those within the total system.

The mass could feel it was always getting richer. This in turn could lead to a reasonable working class conservatism because concern for those who were truly exploited much further down the line might disrupt the ability to survive yourself.

No doubt the Roman working classes who enjoyed free bread and circuses would quite rationally have felt the same.

However, modern elites have became far more fluid, based on innovation, but perhaps much less than we are led to believe - landholdings in the UK are still highly concentrated on surprisingly few people. What they do have is control over organisation and culture.

This whole system (today) depends on continuing trickle-down but we know that the relative benefit to (say) the American middle classes started to decline from approximately the 1970s.

What will the 'few' do when the many start to face severe economic pressure and there is no money left in the kitty for hand-outs because the 'imperial system' is running down?

They will, of course, have to rely on 'security' - superior force - as they have done whenever the mass of the population starts to get a bit itchy - and that requires an ideology of threat to justify it. It requires surveillance, cultural control, fear and quasi-gulags.

Thus it is in the logic of history that the US Administration now leads in creating an ideology of fear within the West and makes demands for high defence and security spending to counter the coming effects of relative pauperisation.

Fear amongst the old and propertied then affects the young populations of both the West (as the old become a dead weight of expenditures on the young) and the South (as its young start to press on the borders of the West from desperation).

Youthful resentments in the West and youthful desires for a better life outside the West make for a potentially volatile cocktail that must worry those who manage the wealth on which the older generations expect to rely for their pensions.

Two and a half thousand years after the destruction of Melos, we are still seeking to crush smaller players for profit and coating our passion for power with fine rhetoric and nonsense. Two thousand years after Spartacus, we are still puzzling on how to deal with the revolts of the damned.

[The quotations are adaptations from 'The Verso Book of Dissent', 2010 ]