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Starhawk Speaks: Review of "Webs of Power"

David Graeber
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising
New Society Publishers, 2002

Just about everyone involved in the movement has heard of Starhawk, even if it is only to vaguely recall her as the person who wrote that science fiction book about a war between LA and San Francisco, as Den Mother of the Pagan Bloc, or as an anarchist witch armed with drum, spells and tarot cards. This is why so many have been startled the first time they meet her or read her writings to discover that she is probably one of the most reasonable people they know.

That combination of radical rejection of the established order and profound decency and common sense makes her, in a lot of ways, a living embodiment of the democratic spirit that is the soul of our movement. In my opinion, it also makes her the single most insightful commentator on the evolution of the movement in this part of the world.

Starhawk describes herself as someone who took a few days off from her life to go to Seattle, and has been gone ever since. The essays in Webs of Power trace out her subsequent history, from A16 to Prague to Brazil to Genoa, and end in the aftermath of 9/11. Most of us will have read at least some of them. In fact, most of us will probably be able to recall long debates and discussions sparked by one or another of her internet reports or strategic analyses.

It's wonderful to have them all in one place, to be able, for instance, to watch her evolution from rage at the Black Bloc in Seattle, to her spearheading the growing "punk/hippie" alliance that has become so important for the direct action movement with the fraying of so many of our former allies among the unions and NGOs.

Paired truths

All the reports are here, along with some longer essays: on vision, on diversity, on nature and direct democracy. The longest is a brilliant reflection on the issue of non-violence, which asks, among many other things, whether it is reasonable to imagine one could reproduce the moral effects produced by a Gandhi, or a King in contemporary America.

Their campaigns took part in a shared cosmological context: both protesters and audience shared assumptions about the important of obedience to God and grace was a matter of denying the body; hence, to take on suffering in the name of something higher had a powerful moral effect, even on racists and colonizers.

One cannot make the same assumptions with anarchists who reject the very notion of obedience to higher authority, and pagans who believe that the body, eroticism, and pleasure are sacred in themselves (or, as she might well have added, an audience bred to such pervasive cynicism they find it hard to believe anyone could act out of selfless motives.) Her own proposal echoes those who are trying to invent a new language of political action.

Starhawk seems to understand just how critical magic, ritual, and cosmology are to any real, living, sustainable idea of revolution. If revolution is a matter of re-imagining the world and then trying to bring those visions into being, then it is essentially a magical act. The same goes for any attempt to change the course of history. This doesn't make it impossible; clearly people have changed history before. But arguably, those who made change understood that in order to do so, one must capture and inflame imaginations and transform people's sense of what's in the cosmos and what it could be like.

Also, they must have known that there are some aspects of the cosmos which are so complicated and so impossible for us to fully grasp, but at the same time so vitally important that they must be treated as to some extent sacred, as things that we should not try to change, but just respect.

It's her keen awareness of these paired truths that makes Starhawk's reflections so important.