May 11, 2009

Being Abundance: Some Critiques, Concerns, and Loose Predictions for Norcals Woo-Woo Industry

woo: concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey.

Northern California's Woo Industry

For those looking to make a living by means involving the use of crystals, offering office feng shui consulting, selling fleur de sel and raw cacao marijuana truffles, serving food prepped so as to not violate the energetic lifelines of onions, hanging business executives upside down over a ravine until they confess their deepest fears and desires, or teaching owner-pet partner yoga, Northern California is the spot to be. An enormous excess of wealth combined with a larger-than-usual consumer base that places higher-than-usual stock in lifestyle values around holistic health, “green” products and services, “alternative” spirituality, “human potential,” and general new-ageyness make Norcal ground zero for the Woo Industrial Complex (WOOIC).

Much as I would like to be your first source for the best-of-the-best in woo-witchy Marxist political economics, I lack some assessment-making skills for really summing up the role of the WOOIC within the political economy of the Bay Area. What I can say is this: a lot of people here are making and spending their money in some woo-ass ways and it is a far bigger part of the economy here than actually gets talked about.

I’m hardly in a spot to draw hard and fast lines. Recent schemes for making extra cash dreamed up by myself and friends have included things like adult baby-burping for somatic release, agave-sweetened lavender lemonade and advice stands in Dolores Park, and you-tube video DJing at area cannabis clubs. And I’m not about to say that I don’t live here in part because I can eat food grown within 100 miles or say public health and holistic health care in the same sentence.

I’m far from too crudely materialist or insufficiently woo to appreciate woo’s appeal (as if the blog does not stand as proof). A quick look at my own woo resume would turn up that: My roommate and I own a special cape to wear while dancing to Stevie Nicks. I attend a school where people may be able to get master’s degrees in transpersonal psychology and drumming. I have full moon rituals and a google calendar track for my menstrual cycle. I pretend to be gluten free, went to herbal medicine school, and keep Pema Chodron books in my bathroom. I consult with an astrologer. Probably worst of all, I worked at a restaurant where all of the menu items were named after affirmations and did not quit within the first week.

Woo and I are well acquainted.

So what's the bone to pick with the WOOIC?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how poorly positioned the people pushing the Woo Industrial Complex are to make much useful meaning out of this economic moment. I’m noticing how profoundly depoliticizing and generally lacking in a materialist analysis woo-world is, and it’s time to try to actually break that down.

It’s hard to know where to start.

A short list of problems associated with the WOOIC and woo itself might include:

• Rampant white supremacist cultural appropriation and a problematic propensity for buffet-style spirituality.
• New and more sophisticated ways of fucking over workers using bizarre spiritual bypassing.
• Phony and weird anti-technology beliefs.
• Reductionism of feminist critiques and analysis into essentialist versions of the sacred feminine.
• A creepy Protestant-esque sense that things are right and people with economic privilege deserve their wealth because of right-consciousness or good acts.
• Bizarre and baseless progress narratives.
• False beliefs in notions of sustainability.
• Problematic beliefs that the world is a story we tell ourselves so we can “choose” to disengage from un-cute economic realities.
• Finally, shock, dismay, or even denial at the fact that the WOOIC is bound up with the same problems associated with capital accumulation that it sought to avoid.

Foreriders of the apocalypse bring message of human transformation from afar

As an industry, the WOOIC concerns itself with offering lifestyle and consumer choices that are meant to help people heal from the harm, emptiness, and unsustainability associated with living during late capitalism, but it does so without offering any useful materialist analysis or critique of capitalism. In this respect, it has a potentially profoundly depoliticizing effect by concerning people with envisioning desired worlds through consumer choices without connecting those visions to a respect for the work of making serious bids for power.

Frequently this “visioning” involves a fetishistic romanticization of pre-capitalist and indigenous societies and cultures. Indigenous peoples are framed as the unself-interested victims of colonial domination, too lacking in deceit to have conceived of the unfortunate and brutal fate that would befall them—let alone pose any meaningful or lasting threat to empire. Much of new-agey culture treats indigenous and non-Western spiritual traditions as artifacts of dead-and-gone or good-as dead-and-gone peoples that there is no ongoing need to have accountability to—rather than cultures that are alive, struggling, or possessed of their own internal contentions.

By these calculations, it is now up to Western new-agey folk to resurrect these “forgotten knowledges” which likely contain overlooked details capable of ushering in new evolutions in human “consciousness.” This set of beliefs is prone to naturalizing capitalism and empire—seeing them as completed projects, rather than ongoing processes—and thus, releasing new-agey folk from the need to assess complicity in the destruction of the cultures they romanticize, or have any meaningful critique of the mechanisms of empire. Certainly, it does not equip people with a sense of solidarity with ongoing struggles for indigenous sovereignty.

Despite the distrust of capitalistic and “scarcity-based” modes of consciousness, the WOOIC at once naturalizes capitalism and believes that the ills of capitalist domination that have befallen the planet will be ended through evolutions in “consciousness” rather than redistributions of wealth or power. In this model, “conscious” capitalism and “sacred commerce” become possible proselytizing forces for this proposed evolutionary shift in human consciousness. We’re working with global capitalism here, people.

Gratitude-speak and class-contortionism

This consciousness “shift” obviously must begin first at an individual level. The path for the “shift” most compatible with the bottom line of the WOOIC is for an individual to stop “telling themselves a story of scarcity.” In this model,nobody needs to be especially critical of their wealth or economic privilege if they believe they are deserving and live with gratitude.

I received one such a loving lecture while lying in savasana last week. It was not met with a chorus of criticism when delivered to a room of people who had mostly paid seventeen dollars for their am yoga class.

The WOOIC works first by obscuring consumer’s ambivalence about “conscious consumption” through astounding feats of class-consciousness contortionism. Using a protestant ethic of “good deeds,” consumers who choose to take care of themselves by eating organic food, supporting local businesses, or investing in their spirituality deserve the level of class and economic privilege they enjoy. Further the only way to keep deserving it is to keep consuming “consciously”—ie, supporting the WOOIC.

Capitalism gets sacred

Sacred commerce, is composed of the belief that the exchange of capital has the potential to be a sacred exchange of life-energy. Several business models currently exist that see themselves as having a “fourth bottom line”—the transformation of the spiritual lives and consciousnesses of their employees and customers. I had the displeasure of working for one such company. A few highlights of working at CafĂ© Gratitude included:

• Being told to stop telling myself a story of scarcity while working without health insurance and living with massive medical debt.
• Being required to attend unpaid new-age workshops.
• Experiencing a general attitude that I should be “grateful” that my employer would take an interest in my spiritual development (we aren’t even going to go down this historical road).
• A paternalistic idea of what that “development” should look like, so that they could be justified in forcing workers to ‘push through resistance’ and participate in types of emotional and spiritual engagement against their will.
• Watching other employees work for free or work unpaid overtime in service of the organism of the company. This is part of a larger technology of union-busting and undermining worker control utilized in the WOOIC. Another great example of this is the “Team Member” policy at Whole Foods which establishes a sophisticated system of worker-on-worker policing.
• Being told that the owners of the company were able to open several new locations and rapidly expand their business because of their spiritual enlightenment and not because of their access to capital or profit from workers’ labor.
• My personal favorite was being told that I could not be helped and was “choosing to tell myself a story of negativity” after threatening to call OSHA when the company repeatedly failed to cover up a drain hole in the kitchen floor and I became the fourth worker to twist my ankle by falling in it.

The WOOIC meets economic crisis

Because the WOOIC lacks any materialist analysis beyond where its own profit margins are concerned, my prediction is its adherents will have scarcely little idea what to do with the current period of economic crisis.

Here are a few observations and predictions for how the WOOIC is equipped to view capitalism's crisis:

• This period will be viewed or even romanticized as a time to reconsider what is really important (ie, our consciousness, not our consumer desires), without acknowledging the major suffering of working families or unemployed people. The period will not be viewed as one for either chipping away at capitalism or even supporting solid economic justice initiatives.
• New notions of alternative economies will be developed. Especially "gift economies" but these ideas won't include an analysis of who these new enclosures do and do not include or of expropriation in general. In this case, everyone in a new age gift economy can be rubbed raw by so many massage therapists, but not much else.
• There will be numerous suggestions of retreat into simplicity or sustainability without understanding the imperatives of accumulation and consolidation or the reality of globalization.

Obviously, these could rapidly shift if a lot of boug-a-tron woo-sters start to feel the burn in serious ways. I don't like to be such a Debbie downer, and wish I had more creative solutions for marrying lifestyle politics that make us want to be alive with anti-capitalist analysis. Tale as old as time. Let me know what you've got, folks.

And finally....

Some words on anti-woo

We did not get entirely deep with the problems with woo (future post), but I think it is important to say that obviously the idea of being entirely anti-woo has its own set of problems

Anti-woo leaves no space for nuanced relationships with woo. It leaves little space for curiosity about how people are making it through this bullshit. It assumes people all arrive at woo in the same way, and that they lack legitimate cultural claim to such ideas or practices—that they even relate to woo as woo.

Anti-woo forgets that many ideas or practices cast as woo have a legitimate cultural basis. Further, anti-woo fails to acknowledge that concepts like legitimacy and cultural purity are very complicated to begin with. In gens, all-out reactionary anti-woo runs the risk of upholding epistemological and cultural values that are all-around pretty nasty. Ones we've seen before.

To get out of this mess, we’re gonna need all the help we can get. We aren’t about to be saved alone by leftist men with bad haircuts who have no curiosity about who the supposed masses actually are. This may mean that if we weren't already, we may need to get woo about it, folks.

The case for woo needing a materialist analysis has been made loud and clear. But materialism can’t stand alone because we’ve got a mystery to build. Besides, does anyone else feel there's is a deep woo-ness--a dynamic and internal intelligence--to the material makeup of stuff and things anyway?

I'm not giving up on woo.

I want to hear from you.


  1. Adele, you're so thoughtful. I love how you write critically but gently. I love that you made space for the concept of curiosity in the last portion of this post. I'd like to include more compassionate curiosity in my own thinking and writing and yours is a model for me to follow. I really admire you!

  2. adele carpenter. what a witty smarty fun and smart-making it is to read. i imagined in my head what the book signing would look like. cape or no cape?... somatic burping with every signing? cosmic treasure hunt for the woo?..

    In a parallel universe...zahraa, not quite sitting, falls to the side slowly, calmly and patienly contemplates her proximity to the carpet. i smile at her so she knows these things are built into the world. she smiles back, big toothless gums. heart, robin

  3. Hey Adele! I think you're very smart. Some thoughts I have:

    How has the world of woo influenced and been influenced by organizers striving toward personal sustainability and fighting burn out culture?

    How does woo change based on who is practicing it? If capitalism and white supremacy and patriarchy are deeply harming the bodies and psyches of poor people and people of color and women and queers, how does woo self-care become an important act of more-than-survival as resistance?

    That being said, I'm interested in what you're talking about as a part of a larger dynamic of individualism as one of the key upholders of neoliberalist capitalism. So, how does this stuff further cement the idea that we all just need to take care of ourselves (and here are some easily prepackaged and consumerist ways of doing it) instead of taking care of each other?

  4. Thank you thank you thank you for writing this. This is full of so many things that needed to be said.