Episode #56 Four arrows flying: Alnoor Ladha activist and visionary on changing the stories we tell ourselves
What if we could see the nature of the stories that drive us, how would we be? Would we be able to change them? And what would we want in their place?
This week, Alnoor Ladha, mystic, visionary, activist and regenerative farmer explores the four ways to change the world.
Alnoor’s work focuses on the intersection of political organizing, systems thinking and narrative work. He was the co-founder and Executive Director of The Rules (TR), a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers, writers and others focused on changing the rules that create inequality, poverty and climate change. TR started in 2012 as a time-bound project and an experiment in anarchist organizational design, exploring new ways of how to work, play and make trouble together.
Alnoor comes from a Sufi lineage and explores/writes about the intersection between politics and spirituality in troubled times. He is also a co-founder of Tierra Valiente, a post- capitalist community in northern Costa Rica.
In this week’s podcast, we discuss his ideas of Capitalism, memes and mind viruses – notably the idea of the Wetiko – and what the antidotes might be. We explore the nature of subjective reality and the narratives that promote capitalism. We explore the need for mystical anarchism, the means by which we might transcend subject/object duality, cultivating relationality and cultivating a sense of connection to the web of life.
Manda: My guest this week is Alnoor Ladha – an activist, a regenerative farmer, a visionary and a writer whose work focuses on the intersection where political organising meets system thinking meets structural change. And they all combine to help change the narrative of our times.
In 2012, Alnoor helped to found The Rules, which was a global network of activists, organisers, designers, coders, researchers, writers all focussed on changing the rules that create inequality, poverty and climate change. As you’ll hear, that was a deliberately time-limited project.
When it wound itself down, Alnoor moved from his birthplace of Canada to co-found Tierra Valiante, an alternative community and healing centre in the jungle of northern Costa Rica while living there. He’s a board member of Culture Hack and the Emergence Network, and he has an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. He is one of the brightest stars in the progressive firmament and it feels really good that he’s our first guest of 2021. An absolutely inspiring way to start the year.
So people of the podcast, please welcome Alnoor Ladha. So, Alnoor, Welcome to Accidental Gods, and thank you for checking in all the way from Costa Rica. It sounds, I have to say, totally glorious, the little bits I understand of where you live. Can you tell us a tiny bit about the community that you’re in?
Alnoor: Sure, of course. And thank you for having me, Manda. And I’ve been listening to a lot of the podcasts from Accidental Gods. So it’s it’s an honour and a pleasure to be on with you. So I live in the northwest jungle of Costa Rica, about three hours from San Jose. I live in a community called Tierra Valiante, which means brave earth. It was founded by about twenty five friends, a mix between Costa Ricans and international people who wanted to be in an experiment of building a post capitalist alternative. And so we bought this land. It’s about eighty seven acres and we put it into a trust, and so nobody owns it. And we set up a healing arts centre that’s run as a cooperative. And we have a biodynamic, regenerative, organic farm, and that’s also run as a cooperative. And there’s a neighbouring ecology which we are actually part of. So some of our space is part of that inventory. And all the profit goes into a shared pool, which is decided by direct democracy and cooperative governance. And we have no distinction between labour and capital. So if somebody was part of this original twenty five person group, we put in funds or works on the land as a farmer or a chef or part of the cleaning staff or maintenance or what have you, they share in that profit pool as well. And so we’re in the very early days and, you know, it’s very much an experiment. And by no means do we see it as the solution or that alternative to really anything. It’s more about how do we live consistently with our principles while being implicated in this totalitarian neoliberal system that we’re all entangled in. And that was more the reason to do it for us, really. And it also it came at an interesting time. It was about halfway through The Rules, which was a project and kind of time bound experiment that many of us were part of the core of Tierra Valiante. We met through that process and we were trying to understand the root causes of inequality, poverty, climate change. And we were running this global activist collective. And we started saying to ourselves, you know, yeah, it’s important to fight the existing system, you know, to remove the noose of capitalism from the neck of 99 percent of humanity. And at the same time, we had to build the alternatives and live it. And so that’s the kind of challenge. The contradiction we live is like the resistance and the renewal.
Manda: Yes. So that you are, in effect, living the three pillars of Joanna Macey’s pillars of The Great Turning. You’ve got the the holding actions in or at least you had with the roots, the holding actions of trying to understand and then hold back the noose of capitalism. But you’ve also got the systems design and the shifting consciousness that were the other two pillars in Tierra Valiante, from the sound of things, which is very inspiring. Every time I listen to you, I think, OK, I’m going to swim to Costa Rica. It will be fine. I’ll stay there forever. So before we move into the very, very fertile ground that that opens up, can you tell us a little bit about your background? Because you sound North American, but your antecedents are are more in the Middle East?
Alnoor: Yeah, I grew up in Vancouver socialised by Canadians and my parents are from East Africa. My mum and her family are from Zanzibar and Tanzania. My dad is from Uganda. They come from a similar migratory path, slightly different routes. But they were Arabs who moved to Egypt, who migrated to Persia, went through India and into East Africa. And so our particular tribe, in some ways, I guess they’re considered the Jews of Islam, which is sometimes said in a derogatory way, and sometimes it’s said in an aspirational way, which is funny. But they were in exile and persecution for for most of their existence.
Manda: Because of a belief system that they held.
Alnoor: You know, it was it was a mix between where their political alliances lay. So they were followers of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. And so they were they were the caliphs of Egypt during the Fatima period. And so that triggered a lot of resent internally within Islam. You know, there was at the time, at least the three major warring caliphs, the Fatima in Cairo, the Abbasids in Baghdad. And then there was also a Syrian caliph later in Al-Andalus. And then there was the traditional seat of power in Mecca. And so there was a lot of inter fighting, let’s say, between the different tribes and the Ismailis were seen as pluralists and very progressive. You know, they sort of brought this golden period of Egypt where Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians and pagans and others lived harmoniously and they had a wisdom school and were translating texts of everyone from Aristotle and Plato and Socrates in the Western tradition to the sort of Persian heretics of the time. And so they were considered a danger, a dangerous ally, let’s say, in the Islamic world. And then after the, during the Crusades, the Saljuqs made an alliance with the Christian crusaders in Cairo. And so then they went into hiding in Persia. And so this is kind of their story. They go into hiding that this is where they got the label, the Hashashin, which is where the word ‘assassin’ comes from. And then they sort of come down, they integrate into society, and then they have a falling out, you know.
Manda: Five, six hundred years of of being peripatetic and being slightly outcast, before you come to Vancouver.
Alnoor: Probably longer than that in our line: in some ways, since the founding of Islam. In many ways, the lore is that when Muhammad comes down from the mountain after his 40 days, he integrates Sufism, which were, the Sufis at the time were the desert mystics, pre Islamic mystics, into Islam. And this is where the Order of the Bench and the Waliz come from, and the these sort of structures. And so it was those original Sufis that followed Ali and Fatima when the Sunni Shia split happened, and then sort of come to Cairo to establish the Fátima dynasty.
Alnoor: And so, yeah, in some ways it’s like a fifteen hundred year kind of journey, you know, and in other ways it’s also very modern. It’s very new, right? It’s sort of… there is no purity of blood, right? There was sort of mergers and intermarriages and conversion all throughout the story, right? And even leading up to 1972, you know, my dad gets exiled from Uganda by Idi Amin and ends up in a refugee camp outside of Vienna in Austria and then randomly gets shipped to Vancouver one day, you know, by a UN programme. And so the deep levels of entanglement in all of this with modernity and trade and commerce and, you know, the relational field, it’s all there, right? And in some ways, it’s all there for all of us, all the time, right? It’s just that I have the privilege of having an oral tradition that past these things down. But in some ways it sounds exotic and in other ways it’s quite ordinary, actually, in that we all had a thousand generations of people who came before us, who lived largely miserable lives, trying to keep body and soul together and trying to maintain the beliefs that kept them sane in an insane and fast moving world that was moving towards where we are now, right, which is late stage capitalism, that sort of relentless era of ‘progress’ that’s led us to this moment of psychosis and collapse. It’s been moving that way for all of us. We just have different migratory journeys of getting there.
Manda: Yes. And you have, from the sound of things, a really powerful intellectual background that questions the status quo and has been questioning the status quo for a very long time, which I’m guessing, partly because I’ve been reading your writings and I will put links to them in the show notes, and there’s some of the most perspicacious, deep and thoughtful critiques of late stage capitalism that I’ve come across. And I’ve spent the last four years exploring this. And so I was very curious as to how you came to be the person that you are, that has the breadth of understanding, and the ability, to really look at the structures in which we swim and notice the things that are broken. I think – I’ve read so much in the last few days, but I think it was in the Wetiko paper, you had a quote about, I don’t know who discovered the water but I’ll bet it wasn’t the goldfish. And so many of us swim within the structures of late stage capitalism to the point where they feel like the way the world is. And it takes somebody who has the capacity to take a step back from that to show us how we can begin to dismantle it, I think, which you seem to have done. So taking a step forward, you’re now in Costa Rica, in what I will say, again, sounds like an idyllic and utterly radical lifestyle. So you wrote the papers that drew me to you, particularly the paper on the Wetiko. And I’d really like to begin to look into those. But just for a moment, let’s look at how you got to be the person who wrote those. So you went to university in Vancouver, I’m guessing?
Alnoor: Yeah. So it’s such an interesting thing, right? When we go into a personal story, because I’m such a big believer in, like, identity is the problem, OK? I think just the thing to say is like in some ways it’s easier for me to actually like in some ways much easier for somebody who’s Other, right? So growing up, as with my background in a very white Canadian urban environment, it was really easy for me to look around and be like, this is not like a healthy, sane way to progress. And I was also lucky that I had immigrant parents who had not fully drunk the Kool-Aid. When I wanted to go play hockey, my dad, it was just like, why would you want to ice skate in the cold and, you know, be in violent contact with other children? Like, this doesn’t make any sense. And so we had a bit of that sort of critical distance, let’s say, for sure. And I think having a mom that was like Deep Mystic, who was my mom, took a vow to the Order when she was seven to meditate every day from 4:00 to 6:00 in the morning her entire life. And so seeing that level of sort of commitment and devotion and discipline in a culture where nobody seemed to be really devotionally doing anything, you know, everyone was kind of working jobs they didn’t want to work and raising children they didn’t seem to like very much. I had this very contrasted experience of this very devotional mother, you know, who was in love with the Divine. And I had an uncle… my parents separated early and I was raised by my uncle, who was a mystic and a philosopher and taught at McGill and would come over for his summers. He would help contextualise things for us. And I think that’s really the kind of key to get out of the current system is just somebody describing, you know, the Marshall McLuhan quote: what the water’s texture is. And how we got to be in this particular stream. And, you know, he sort of provided that role, where my mom was showing me just like pure embodiment. My uncle was giving me more that sort of pedagogical, you know, like what the Germans would call, like, the Geist of it.
Manda: Right. Yeah. And tell us a little bit about The Rules, the time-limited construct that you were in before you got to Tierra Valiante.
Alnoor: So we started The Rules in 2011, actually, informally, kind of during the Occupy moment. And there were seeds of it before then. And I was in New York at the time, and Occupy happens and redirected our energy very strongly for the first few months. And then I guess tentatively till now, really, a lot of the relational tissue from some of the initial people we met is still there and still intact. We were kind of working informally when we set up The Rules and we had both like a think tank arm that was trying to get more progressive and radical ideas into the mainstream and make them feel like common sense. But then also working directly with social movements, largely peasant movements, farmer movements, indigenous movements, and trying to be in solidarity with what was happening in other places, in the global south and elsewhere. And part of our understanding was like, look, we could do this as volunteer work, but the type of work we’re doing, trying to bring like cognitive linguistics and memetics and neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists with activists and writers and farmers, like just that level of organising and interdisciplinary work requires really full time attention.
And so when we said, OK, let’s… If we’re going to set up an NGO structure in the US, register 501c3 and all the drama and implications and bureaucracy that comes with, let’s do it for a short period of time, let’s just be really aware of the trappings of the not-for-profit industrial complex. We don’t want to be in the job creationism world. This is not…we’re not creating this thing in order for us to have ‘work’. We’re not creating this thing to live in perpetuity and celebrate our own success. Like if we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of an NGO, like something is direly wrong. And so we sort of agreed initially on 10 years, and then we changed it down the line a couple of years later to eight years, which felt like a commitment to our time together in a particular configuration, learning how to work and play and make trouble together. But also we were like, we have no idea what the world’s going to be like in eight years. And that was a big factor for us in the way we were thinking, is just the world is changing so rapidly. Let’s be responsive to now, and let’s not think about long term preservation. Let’s just be open to emergence and what interesting configurations want to come out of this. And if we know we’re going to close the official structure down, how do we become unemployable? And that was more of our experiment of like, OK, we have this window of knowing we’re going to exist in one way, and there’s some comfort in that. And that comfort also, it could bring a laziness. And so how do we create a context in which our time together actually does the opposite, and it sparks ideas and creativity?
Manda: Because you take nothing for granted. If it’s ending, it feels, it’s like when you give up a job, I’ve noticed, the last couple of months are suddenly much sharper because this is the last time I’m going to be doing this, and meeting this person.
Alnoor: And we sort of had eight years of that. And in some ways, there’s this concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone that came from Hakim Bey, and it was used in Burning Man and other places. But we were playing with this idea, the temporary organisational zone. So not that we’re against the idea of organising together or even… It’s just that the self perpetuation of the organisation often supersedes any of the work you do. And so it’s so much more freeing and liberating to be in this temporary organisational zone because every day is like your last day at work. We weren’t, like, like pandering to funders. We weren’t you know, it was it was deeply liberating as an experience of working together.
Manda: And have you taken that into Tierra Valiante? Is it also time-limited?
Alnoor: You know, it’s different with a Land project because in some ways it’s the deepening relationship with this particular piece of land that creates the bond. In some ways, it is a temporary configuration because not everyone who comes stays. There is more of a sort of dynamism. Yeah, I think there’s something particular about work that is deeply problematic. Because so of our identity gets entangled into work, and what we do for a living, and the validation that gives us in the external world. And that’s where all those ego battles happen. In a living project like this and sort of land based work, there is something about being called to the Land, and having that individual relationship. So there are people who come that I don’t necessarily want to live with when I first meet them, but I see the way the Land holds them, and how they’re in dialogue with the Land, and that the Land is actually calling them in and welcoming them. And as we sort of attune ourselves to these omens, it becomes like, OK, you know, we have to adhere to the desires of the Land, and the Land clearly wants this person here. It’s almost like the configuration gets decided in our ability to be in verse and dialogue with this Land that we’re stewarding.
Manda: Right. This is exactly where Accidental Gods is heading, is to be at that point where you can ask of the whole web of life around you, but it is grounded in the Land. What do you want of me, and then act on it. And you’re there and you’re doing it. And that sense that the agency comes from the web of life, and the human consciousnesses within that are part of that dance but are not necessarily leading the dance, feels very precious and very beautiful. And also. I know you’re not intending it to be a model for everybody else, but, my goodness, it does feel as if it could be. Anyway, we will come back to that again in a bit. Can we head now towards the Wetiko paper? Simply because I am still very struck by the nature of what it says. And I recognise that you wrote it, or it was published in 2016, so you probably wrote it in 2015. So it’s a little out of date. But can you give us a precis of what that paper said, and then we’ll go from there?
Alnoor: So this was the paper called Seeing Wetiko. So Wetiko is is an indigenous First Nations concept from from Turtle Island, from North America, and many different traditions had a version of it. And so that the Cree word is Wetiko. And there’s many other ways to say it, Wetiko, Windigo, etc. But the core of the Wetiko virus was that it came initially from northern tribes where one of the tribe’s members would get stuck alone or with somebody else out in the wilderness, had no choice but to eat human flesh. And then once they ate human flesh, they would say two things happened to them. They would have an icy heart forever more from that moment, when that decision was made, even if it was for survival and necessary, even if that person who died gave themselves to them, it didn’t matter, the context. Once that threshold is cross, that threshold is crossed. And then the second was that they would have an unnatural appetite for more human flesh, even when they came back into the community and were surrounded by abundance, the sort of virus would pull on them. And it was an entity, it was a being in and of itself. And it was linguistically, as a word, not used very often. It was very particular, as you can imagine.
And then the Western Europeans came, and the settlers, the colonialists come to Turtle Island and different tribes spontaneously interacting with them, start using this descriptor and seeing their relationship with the natural world as cannibalistic, seeing that the hierarchical relations that propped up like one house with all the slave labour as cannibalistic and then it sort of like disappears from the lexicon for a long period of time. And then there’s a guy named Jack D. Forbes, who is one of the most brilliant scholars of the 20th century. He was a leader in the AmerIndian movement and for indigenous rights and Alcatraz and sort of all these key moments. And he was a professor at the University of California, and he writes an amazing book called Columbus and Other Cannibals. I believe it was his last book. And he wrote like 60 books, and some very academic. He was a self-taught historian. And some of them were, you know, three, four or five hundred pages on the history of a certain tribe. And then he writes this very accessible book at the end of his life called Columbus and Other Cannibals, where he re-popularises this concept. And so we were playing on that concept, Martin Kirk, the co-author and I, and merging it with the idea of memetics, and memes are like the cultural equivalent of genes. They’re the base unit of an idea. So Wednesdays are a meme, karate is a meme, Islam or Christianity are memes, but we use it in pop culture in this I guess, pejorative way of like Internet memes, like LOLCats or something. And that’s just one very narrow definition of it. It’s really the base unit of a culture. Anything that is like an exchangeable idea, especially ideas that are communicable, they go from one person to another. They sort of live within their host. They mutate depending on the context. Those are very accurately described as memes. So like one of the most popular memes in Western culture is the idea of the invisible hand, right? That if everyone just behaved really selfishly, somehow some perfect equilibrium is going to be created. And we know that’s nonsense. And we’ve had 50 years of econometric data to show that that’s utterly false. But the meme is so potent and so powerful. It’s so, in mimetic terms, they would call it like a sticky virus, that it still exists. It’s taught in every economic one to one class to this day. Those are the types of sort of ideas we wanted to explore and how Wetiko is actually, in some ways the hidden virus of Western civilisation. It’s always there. It’s always in the background. It’s actually the sort of dominant relationship we have with the natural world is essentially one of domination. These are resources for us to use for our pleasure, but it’s never discussed. And so one of the key thoughts in meme theory is that by being aware of a meme complex, it has less power over you. And that’s what we were trying to do with Seeing Wetiko.
Manda: So let’s explore this, the concept of the meme and bring it into the Wetiko. So the Wetiko concept is of the icy heart and that once the threshold has been crossed, the appetite continues and probably grows. And also, as I understand it, can spread from person to person, even in the original Wetiko concept, it was that that that iciness of heart and desire to eat human flesh was a communicable thing that had an energy, and I felt, reading the article, but I want to check on this, almost as if it has its own agency, and that outside of its human host or inside of its human hosts, separate from its human hosts, it wants to replicate, and to spread. Was I projecting that in, or was that an inherent part of the initial concept?
Alnoor: Yeah, it is. The concept of meme becomes popular in the West is through Richard Dawkins book The Selfish Gene, he wrote in 1979. And that idea of the communicable aspect and the mutation aspect, what we’re sort of in, that sort of more neo platonic ideal. So you know Plato said that the world of the formless is more real than the world of the form, that there’s this ideal world. So if I imagine the perfect sphere, any sphere I see in ordinary life is just a derivative of that in some ways. And so in neo-platonic thought, they sort of took that further and they started to say, well, the original thought forms are love and fear. And these are living beings, they’re deities, in and of themselves and that all of the sort of some Gods, greed, selfishness, desire, lust, but also compassion, altruism, empathy: these are all deities in and of themselves. And they need human beings in order to exist, in order to be perpetuated as ideals. And one way of doing that was through Gods, who embodied the ideals Zeus, Osiris and Isis, and various pantheon of ancient gods. In another way they do that is directly as sort of almost minor Gods battling for real estate in our minds and our bodies. And so that that sort of neo platonic impulse is in this article for sure.
Manda: And so the Wetiko could be considered a minor God or an offshoot of a major God, which is probably the same thing, and that it desires to spread itself. And the Western colonialists arrive on the shores of Turtle Island and they’re bringing in everything that they do. This sense of Wetiko, they are already separated from their context with the Land. How far back do we think that that separation goes in the Western mindset? Because there was a time when people living in the West, we’re also living in context with the Land, do you have a sense of when that disruption occurred?
Alnoor: Yeah, this is a topic of great academic historical debate. I think, in the simplest sense, without getting into all the sort of cultural anthropology and archaeology and all of that is to say, like in some very real ways, the Neolithic revolution and the invention of farming was the initial separation from the natural world. We went from being hunter-gatherers, which we were for ninety nine, ninety eight percent of human history. In some ways, if we want to talk about our sort of original state or lineage or culture, it’s much more that than anything that can be described as the invisible hand in modernity. And that battle for what is human nature is actually central to this whole understanding of memetics and the meme wars and the battle for ideas that is being waged in the modern world. And so one lens on this is that we were hunter-gatherers primarily, and we lived in trust of the bounty of the mother. We went out and on a daily basis, there was no understanding of surplus. There didn’t need to be. We were just living in such radical abundance, and such knowing, and dialogue, that we were sort of granted in some ways a luxurious sustenance. Those two words can go together! And what the invention of farming did was, and now you have surplus.
We know that the first buildings were ziggurats, these pyramid structures where you would store grain at the bottom, and then there would be a sort of militia class protecting it, a layer above a priest class above them, managing the militia through a belief system, through theology of some kind and above the priest class was the Sun emperor, or the king, or representative of God in some way. And so that hierarchy gets crystallised in the city states of Babylon and Ur, and from then to here is not a very far leap. You know the ziggurat hierarchy has essentially been crystallised within neoliberal capitalism. It’s that it’s almost identical in its structure, its patriarchy, the role of high priests, whether they’re popes or economists. You know, it’s a kind of syncretic version of The Ziggurat. That’s where we’re at. But also in Western Europe, of course, we have the role Christianity played sort of specifically when Rome takes on Christianity as its imperial religion and basically goes through these sort of cascading waves of destruction through Europe, through forced conversion. And that’s probably when at scale that severance from the natural world happens, and then that becomes amplified through the industrial revolution. And none of these things are discrete. They’re all overlapping, because the industrial revolution is, of course, fuelled by this Protestant work ethic that sort of, what makes you worthy in society is how you materially contribute. And so when that mutation happens with the idea of a sort of Western supremacy, which is being buoyed up by these colonialist expeditions around the world that are bringing all this wealth back into Western Europe, confirming their place in the world, you know, this sort of cycle feeds itself. And so you end up getting the hierarchy we have now, which is human exceptionalism at the top, human supremacy of the top, Western European… now, you would say white supremacy and sort of like the base of the racialized kind of hierarchy of capitalism. And of course, in the middle, you still have the patriarchy. You still have, man is the measure of all things, you know, as the old kind of enlightenment model would go. And I would argue that that has been triangulated with Otherness is the ontology of all other beings, and then capital is the measure of man. So those three kind of memetic pillars, if you will, sort of prop up our existing system. And it’s not so different from where we ended up after the Neolithic revolution. So you can draw that that that historical line between them for sure.
Manda: Yeah. So we end up in a state where humanity has cut itself off from any kind of energetic connexion with the natural world, and has a belief system where money and value are equated, and community and connectivity and that sense of service to the natural world are viewed not only as worthless, but actually dangerous and to be expunged. And we don’t have witch burnings anymore, but we still have a lot of people being viciously destroyed, if they decide to step out of line. It’s not the same as being burned, but it does crush people. I would like to come back to the economics, partly because I’m in the middle of reading Jason Hickel’s book. And it it connects to this really well. But just on a purely energetic basis, I would like to look again, or to look more deeply at the energy that lies behind this. And this is my thing, and it may be only my thing and it may be not something that resonates with you, in which case probably end up cutting this bit out. But I have a felt sense when I am at my stillest and most connected, that we exist now, and have probably existed for quite some time, in a state where there are two very large forces, and it may be the love and the fear of the new Platonists, let’s… We could easily call them that. But there’s the side that is regenerative and the side that is destructive, and the human intent can feed one or other of those sides. It is. And at any given moment, any one of us may be feeding either one of those sites. And that if we get to the point where we can realise that we have agency and that we can make a choice, then we pick one or other of those sides and we can give our life’s energy in service of that. And I feel sometimes that if I look back through history, it has seemed as if one or other side has held supremacy at different times through history, but that now we’re at a very fine balance point and that if I shift my weight very slightly one way or the other, it feels like it creates quite a big tip – which may well be my ego jumping up and down, and that’s fine. But have you in your explorations, does this resonate with you at all that the Wetiko is an entity in and of itself, that it chooses to infect people, living inside the memetic concepts, that it is an autonomous being with agency, that is doing what it does very deliberately, and is endeavouring to draw more, more of humanity’s agency to its side. Does that make sense as a concept at all?
Alnoor: Yeah, and I’m really happy to talk about this because I’m a big believer in multiple simultaneous ontologies. That there is a role for all of these lenses on reality simultaneously, and and actually by sort of amputating any one of them, or saying that’s not allowed to be in the public domain, even the word ‘energy’ or talking about subtle realms, or what have you, in sort of mainstream academic discourse would ensure you wouldn’t get tenure. Right? That is a form of control. It’s a form of domination. And so who are we to say what realities are existing simultaneously or not? Actually, the subjective reality in some ways is the dominant reality. We are all living these sort of subjective experiences. And so if I go if and if we’re asking the question from a subjective perspective, when I go into the sort of feeling state that would allow me to assess that, I would say that two things are probably happening simultaneously: is that we are being we are negotiating with these energetic forces like Wetiko that are in some ways, do have their own agency and are independent to us, and are bigger than us, but also that we have a karmic relationship with those entities and those beings, whether epigenetically through ancestry, through culture. And so in some ways, we create them. And we feed them by praying at the deity of the altar, the altar of that deity, whether we know it or not, we are, you know, every time we behave in a way that commodifies another human being, that sort of consumes the natural world for our own pleasure without an awareness of the consequence, we are strengthening the field of Wetiko.
Manda: Yes. In a in a more fair genetic sense. And I think that is true. And at the same time, do we have agency? We do have agency. But that agency is entangled. The idea of like pure Western agency feels like an illusion to me. There’s no such thing as… agency, an absence of like antecedence or like historical trauma or epigenetic phenomena or even contextual phenomena. That at any given time matter is contorting to the subjective gaze. Right. And so Karen Burrard talks about ‘we meet the universe halfway’. There’s no objective reality, and there’s no pure agency. Something else is happening in the quantum phenomena of we’re locking atoms and superposition through our awareness of it. And maybe Wetiko operates in a similar way. You know, it’s its own being, its own entity, with its own agency. It’s been fed by millions of souls and probably our ancestors. And we might have a predisposition towards it because it’s in our lineage in some way, we made a contract with that being. And it can also be broken. We also do have the ability in the agency to say, we will change the very structure of that being. I think that possibility exists as well, which is kind of very relevant to being Accidental Gods.
Manda: Right. Yes. And and what you’re doing at Tierra Valiante also, that’s an active choice insofar as it is possible to do it. When we swim in a world that is otherwise immersed in neoliberal capitalism, it’s a way of beginning to break that.
Alnoor: Yeah. And, you know, I think if you’re a good student of your culture. And you understand how the dominant system – this is a good lead for like where to go to late stage capitalism because the two are so interrelated. It’s like, well, how do we understand what the oxygen is or what the water we’re swimming in is? And in some ways, you just have to look around you. Right? It’s like I think of capitalism and many of these thought forms as like complex, adaptive evolutionary systems, that they’re alive. They’re like assemblages, their complexes of beings Capitalism is just not a steady state thing, it’s the greatest Frankenstein we’ve ever created in some ways, is the market system, right. And for example, like there was an Occupy Wall Street started in September 2011. By that Christmas, there was Occupy Wall Street posters selling for 59 dollars and Wal-Mart, made in China, frames, and the whole supply chain. It’s like that’s how quickly the system co-opts any form of dissent. And so to be a good culture, you’re like, OK, well, how does this thing how does this complex adaptive system works? Well, it tells us there’s a merit system. It tells us that if you just go to the right schools and do well and you’ll somehow be achieved in this culture. But actually the opposite is happening. It’s pulling up those who best serve its logic. And what’s its logic? Well, it’s short termist, it’s greedy. It’s extractive, it’s life destroying. And so the people who best adhere to that logic get pulled to the top of that system. And they’re the people who are on the cover of Fortune magazines, and our presidents of countries. And when you see the world that way, everything all of a sudden flips right there, Like, oh, I see. OK, so these are just the best ambassadors of our culture’s logic. And you may think you’re trying, even when you see somebody who you think is trying to change that culture, like an Obama or someone like that, you realise how quickly they have to get in line. And that the sort of machinery of the system is about job creation. They call it job creation, but it’s about growth. That’s really what it’s about. That’s the logic of the capitalist thing, has to continue to grow these piles that continue to get bigger. And at the core of that in some ways is the Wetiko deity. It is the cannibalistic impulse that’s growth at all costs. It doesn’t matter what the consequences are. And when you’re dealing with that sort of a thought form in some ways, by just spending the time in contemplation on what is the nature of this destructive force around me, which many people in spiritual communities don’t do, we think our contemplation is that inner work, but part of our contemplation is to really be students of our culture in order for our prayer to be more contextually relevant.
And so that’s part of this practise is like you sort of get a sense of what’s happening in this culture, and then really then you can be in service to countering that culture. Because I would say, like the act of gifting, for example, is really a radical act. Right, because the culture is rewarding greed and transactionalization and commodification. And, you know, you walk by somebody on the street and they compliment your jacket, and you just take it off and give it to them. People don’t know what to do with that anymore. Like, there’s no exchange. There’s no attribution. There’s no need for anything to be returned to you. That kind of an act starts to change the very fabric in which the operating system functions. And so in that sense, I see what you’re saying with Tierra Valiante. And I’m always like also conscious to say that, like, we’re just in experimentation mode, right? And there’s no one way to do this. There’s that line from one of the Eagles singers. But he says, call someplace paradise, and kiss it goodbye. Every time we think we understand Wetiko, it’ll find a way to insert itself into our decision making structure.
Manda: Yes. And I think there’s probably a whole other podcast, but the extent to which whether it is an innate part of human psychology, or whether it is a fundamental break. But either way, it doesn’t matter, because we are who we are, and what I really want for people is that we give them agency and a sense of moving forward. And I have so many notes here, so giving. Definitely. I remember talking to Miki Kashtan in an earlier podcast, and her framing of Wetiko, although she doesn’t call it that, her concept of the wounds of the patriarchy, our separation, powerlessness and scarcity, and her response to how to begin to step over that was to give without receiving and to receive without giving, and that the second of those was by far the harder. That we are so encultured to not being beholden to anybody because then we might have to match in value the gift that has been given. That learning how to do that is very hard. So given that we are where we are, and the people listening may well, I hope, begin to sit down and really begin to look at the nature of the sea that we swim in, and the world that we live in. How else can we begin to shift ourselves out of this, given that not everybody yet is going to be able to form a community that exists on the Land and with the Land in the way that you have done? Although I have to say we are endeavouring to do something similar here, because that connexion to Land feels really important for a lot of people live in the middle of a city. What else can they do that can begin? To change the way that Wetiko has its hold on us.
Alnoor: It’s a really good question. I’d say there’s probably like four strands into this question. And let’s try we’ll try to put four arrows in the air at the same time and see if they hold. So I think one is where we sort of came from, which is like really being in contemplation about the impoverishments of our time. The fact that we have been born into a culture that is violent in its nature, is extractive, that requires destruction, that’s patriarchal, hierarchical, et cetera, et cetera, that’s been fed by this five thousand years of imperialism and genocide and colonialism and et cetera. And not too many people see, the left and they’re like, you know, the left is so overdeveloped in its ability for critique, but it doesn’t go anywhere else from that point. And the point of being in this contemplation is not to stay in the critique, but to cultivate enough of it so you could more accurately see the shadow and light simultaneously, and to see the non-dualistic nature of reality. And I think that is a practice, and that is a pillar that does need to be cultivated. And we don’t really have any traditions that teach us that, because clearly the dominant economic system and the secular democratic capitalist system will not encourage us to have that level of critical thinking, and the spiritual traditions that used to cultivate that, especially the mystical traditions of Gnosticism and Sufism and Kabbalah and other impulses. They also got institutionalised in their own ways. And so we have to sort of free ourselves from both of those aspects, and almost create a – I would say like a mystical anarchist etiquette on how we sort of approach these issues, and how we spend our time in contemplation, understanding that and then, well, that’s like a never ending life process. I would say there’s a really a second contemplation around transcending the subject/object duality if the sort of core of this culture requires the Othering of all life, the Othering of all beings. How do I cultivate a practice where I’m seeing that there is one consciousness taking multiple forms, including myself. And not to say we always can stay in that state. The point is not to stay in that state, because you have incarnated in a separate body. We have incarnated in white bodies and black bodies and brown bodies with all the historical antecedents and scars and ancestors to prove it, but rather to cultivate empathy and compassion through the understanding of non-dual thought.
Alnoor: And that’s not separate to this understanding of the political economy, that the two are sort of related in some ways. And then I’d say the third is you don’t necessarily have to set up a community. Like, that’s one expression of it. There’s people who will stay in urban environments. There’s people who are more singular in the way they wander, let’s say. But to try to cultivate a relationality with other beings based on full expression and mutual respect and solidarity. So if that means gathering with a circle of people where you are just saying what your deepest fears are, and what your deepest desires are, for the way you would like the world to move. We don’t really cultivate that skill set in Western culture, where we actually take responsibility for being citizens of our time, and to actively do that with other people, to say that I have a point of view on where this is going, and how I’m being implicated in this Ponzi scheme of modernity. And I think creating those spaces, whether that’s permanent spaces or temporary autonomous spaces or what have you, is really important practice. You know, it could be a study group, it could be a book club, but a place where there is non compartmentalisation, where all of you can be present, and you can talk about, yeah, we talk at Tierra Valiante, part of our enquiry is we say Eros, Gnosis and Polus. And Eros is not an open love community, but it’s like one of the things we say is like… And we learnt this from from a community called Tamara, is that your private relationship is not private. It affects everybody. So how do we just create space where we’re in an honest circle with each other and where we’re not living these atomised lives in our houses, pretending that it’s not affecting the entire energetic field? And also saying what our desires are, even sometimes for the first time to our partner in a more public setting. So just creating that level of transparency and dialogue. So that’s the Eros. And then the Gnosis is direct relationship to the divine, and in whatever way you do that, whether that’s through plant medicine work or Daoist practises or Buddhist practices of Sufi practices or Christian practices or what have you, and then we sort of share that with each other. You know, there’s almost like a sort of research aspect to what we do in our experience. And then we come back once a week in a circle and we tell each other what we’re exploring and why. You know, I spent eight hours on Saturday trying to communicate with this mother tree. And here’s why. You know, some people will think you’re crazy and others… but just to create that space is so critical. And then the Polus is like rethinking the political economy, rethinking our relationship with each other. And so so I would say, yeah, everything from cooperative ownership structures to non hierarchical direct democracy approaches to biomimicry, and biophilia, and all of these things. All of these ways of rethinking the commons sort of go in that category. And so just creating these groups of Eros Polus and Gnosis, sort of exploratory discussions around these themes. And then the fourth, I would say, is to sort of cultivate a more animistic approach. And in some ways, Animism is the antidote to rationalism and materialism. But it’s not a switch that just gets turned on. You know, it’s really a practice. And a lot of the things, the places we’re growing to as a species, we have not had practise. Like we have not had practise in Citizens’ Assemblies and direct democracy, and due process in this way. And so we have to create our own areas to be practitioners in that. And it’s the same with a sort of animistic world view, of being in dialogue with a living planet, and a living universe, and creating offerings, and giving names to trees and beings you walk by, and this sort of subtle practise, it is discursive. So it feeds upon itself. Like there’s a line, and I forgot who says it. But it’s like the natural world will speak to people who trust the natural world. So when you start deepening your trust, it can actually communicate to you more. And so it is just being in that active practise, I’d say all four of these things are critical to do at the same time. And there’s probably another 10 we could say. But I think all of those, that’s a good starting point, to say, you know, not to say this is our way, but just coordinates of possibilities.
Manda: Yeah. And it feels very much as if they all feed into each other. So when you’ve got toward contemplation of transcending the subject/object duality, then you are innately going to begin to have a more animistic approach, I imagine. I mean, certainly that’s that’s my experience. And I love the idea of the Eros, Polus and Gnosis as a foundation for being in relationship to oneself, to other people, and to the natural world. If I can expand my sense of Eros and of my ability to express desires and to hear desires to everything around me, if I can share my sense of the divine with every other part of the web of life, and if I can rethink the relationships and the structures of hierarchy and agency with all of the rest of web of life, and then the whole world opens up completely. That is so very lovely.
Alnoor: And maybe I could add just one thing to that, to say the other thing that, the other aspect that I think is important to introduce is just the willingness to disidentify from the dominant culture when you start to engage in these practices, because the way this complex adaptive system keeps its self preservation is by inventing new thought forms like nationalism and patriotism. And it’ll sometimes tell you should be grateful to have what you have. And the only reason you have what you have is because you’re born into this culture. It’s a very sophisticated machinery that keeps it intact. And as soon as you opt out in some way, then it starts dangling the old sort of lures, right, of, well, you’re not going to have a job, you’re not going to have status, you are not going to have respect. And it’s like we have to be willing to walk away from that. Like we have to start seeing our lives as mythopoetic acts. It doesn’t require a Wikipedia page to ratify that existence. You know, the more we understand that our lives are these sort of creative shamanic acts we’re performing on ourselves, and we are intricate even to the system that we want to reconfigure, let’s say, I could say dismantle because it’s dismantle and also reconstruct in some way. We’re integral to that, and we don’t have to be. But everything we do to try to step outside of that is going to try to prevent us from doing so. And we just have to be OK with that. And not just OK with it, there’s actually relish in that, our lives are so much more mythical than any reductive ability to say what we do for a living. You know, like all of those old constructs are meant to keep us one dimensional and is also uncomfortable to start to peel those layers back.
Manda: Yes, but the discomfort… it’s it’s like the discomfort of birth. Being born is not comfortable, but it’s an essential part of of living. And gosh, there’s so much depth, there’s so many things I want to go into. But just that willingness to disidentify, seeing our lives as mythopoetic acts. I love that. But in addition to that, I’m getting… I’m trying to find words around an internal energetic space, which is feeling the old order as having gravitational mass, and the new order as trying to reach an escape velocity, in a way, and wondering… because we are endeavouring not to identify with the old order. And yet it has all the ways and the hooks and the gravitational mass of drawing us back in, and singing siren songs that tell us that we are different, and we are actually lifting away, when in fact it’s just enfolding us back in. Nonetheless, have you found another gravitational mass? What I’m struggling towards is, it would be very easy for everybody who is endeavouring not to identify with the old order to do that in isolation. And to become fragmented and perhaps attain escape velocity on their own, and yet if we were able to join everybody together in the ecosystem of ecosystems that, for instance, Humanity Rising is trying to move towards, then is it possible, is it desirable, to create another entity which has its own gravitational mass, which then begins to give people a sense of cohesion in another… that isn’t the old Wetiko? Does that make sense as a concept? And are you feeling that it’s possible, or is it better for us to be fragmented?
Alnoor: Yeah. This is a kind of itself a mythical question in some ways, right? It’s like, will the dominant system die by being sort of spliced? As the first, you know, protocell being became two cells? Or does like a multipolar approach will be the thing that takes it down. And provides so many other avenues? I’m probably somewhere in between. I think that there’s probably not going to be another, like, monolithic impulse that unites everyone around its campfire in the same way, because in order to sort of hold that kind of power, it required a lot of dark magic. You know, it required these notions of the invisible hand, and the sort of distributed fascism of capitalism where everyone had to just take care of themselves. And through doing that, it’s sort of like propped up this singular, monolithic capitalist being. And in some ways with what’s happening, and this is just my subjective sense of it, is that actually what we will share if we want to call this new emerging world post-capitalism. I don’t think it’s going to be an ‘ism’ in the same way, like it’s not going to be concocted by two smart Western Europeans in a room that write a manifesto. You know, it’s kind of like, it’s going to be a set of values that unite us. It’s going to be a set of sort of insights. It’s going to be a certain sensibility that basically has to be historical in perspective, to a certain extent. It has to understand like where we came from and how we got it so inconceivably wrong, you know, and create a sort of a values based vision that’s based on shared ideals, like altruism and solidarity and empathy and non-zero sum outcomes and non-violence. It’s essentially a life-centric model. And that’s going to have so many expressions, is my sense, that there will be no one way to do it. But we will know the others through the manner by which they approach, if that makes sense. And so, and in some ways, that embodiment is kind of what’s happening. This is part of like if we were to say that, you know, the four arrows in the air we talked about earlier of cultivating an understanding of what’s happening in the dominant culture of practising, transcending subject/object duality, of creating like minded people where we’re sort of sharing this thinking with practising animistic approaches to being, interacting with the more than human world. And then we also added disidentifying from the dominant culture as a practice in and of itself, really. And then sort of this becomes the sixth sort of practice in that which is really around the embodiment of these post capitalist values, and creating context in which we can be the best aspects of ourselves. And that’s where a community comes in. And and this is actually in some ways central to the idea of, what is our understanding of human nature? It almost seems that this is a secondary question.
But actually it’s the primary question, because the reason the existing system has been so successful, partly is that it’s convinced us that this is the natural outcome of human beings: that we are inherently selfish, and we are red in tooth and claw, and you leave us to our own devices and this is what we will do. But we have 30 years of social science that says otherwise: that actually human beings are highly contextual. You put us in any context, and we will be what that context demands. That’s in some ways the human superpower. And, you know, someone with a white lab coat tells us to shock someone to death, like the Stanley Milgram experiments, we will shock that person to death. And this is where the banality of evil stuff comes in. And then you know what the Good Samaritan studies show us? Like somebody who’s about to give a talk on the Good Samaritan and the values of it, who are so even, you know, imbued with those values and sort of top of mind. Just one factor – they’re late for their talk, they will walk by a bleeding person most of the time. We’re that contextually sensitive, as beings. And so if we were hunter gatherers for 99 percent of our history, our dominant context was one of cooperation. It was one of altruism, it was one where we know from teeth samples and bone sample density, that we were eating two thousand calories a day on average, it didn’t matter if you were the chief of the tribe or a lowly gatherer. And there was, yes, fighting amongst the tribes.
But within the tribe, there was very little infighting and there was very little hierarchy. And we were working probably 10 hours a week. This is the Marshall Sahlins called the ‘original affluent society’. So we have the ability to create this context for the purposes of this conversation. We’re calling it a post capitalist context. But the contexts that we create are going to determine our ability as human beings to evolve, and what direction we go into. It’s not that we can singularly decide we’re just going to be X or Y or Z and then just become that person, because we are who we are through others. We are beings of relationality, and we are all ecosystems, essentially, literally, like on a cellular level. We are made up of communities of bacteria and microorganisms. On a sort of psycho spiritual level, we are connected with every human being and more than human being that’s in our kind of physical, energetic psychological sphere. On a temporal level, our ancestors are living through us, right. Our future selves and future generations are living through us. On a spatial level, we are an ecology of cells, of all the beings seen and unseen that we’re entangled with. And so to approach thinking about how we create the context in which those entanglements can flourish through the values of generosity, of kindness, of empathy, of, you know, rewarding and creating an incentive system and a value system that actually makes us want to bring the whole of ourselves and compartmentalise into space. That’s where healing and transformation is going to happen. And there’s no like leapfrog. I think there is a period of healing and reconciliation and grief that is required to be born outside of an intact culture takes its toll on us. Right. And that’s what five thousand years of modernity has done. And so there is some reckoning that needs to happen and that requires the container. That requires community, that requires witness. And I think that’s partly what we’re all trying to create in our own respective ways.
Alnoor: Yeah. And hoping that it won’t take 5000 years for us to get there.
Manda: And it can’t. We know this, yes. Alnoor, I think we’ve totally run out of time. This has been so inspiring. It felt as if we really went to places that I was desperately wanting to go when I first read that article. So I am enormously grateful. I strongly suspect there will be room for another podcast if you’re ever up for it. But in the meantime, thank you for coming on to Accidental Gods.
Alnoor: Thank you. And thank you for the work you’re doing, and also just the calmness and serenity which you bring to this as a as a community leader and an organiser, and then a writer and a thinker.
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