An American Fascism?
The following is a slightly edited version of the afterword to my new book, Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen, to be published by Quest in November 2008. Sadly, this will be a tad late to actually profit much from the election fever, but with any luck it's close enough for people to still have an interest in the theme.
Starting with the mysterious appearance of the Rosicrucian manifestoes in Germany in the early 1600s, and ending, as the afterword shows, with some recent developments in the US, I look at some examples of occult or "illuminated" politics in the modern world. Some areas covered include Rosicrucian utopianism and its collapse in the Thirty Years War; the esoteric sexual politics of 18th century London and its influence on Emanuel Swedenborg; Freemasonry and Mesmerism's impact on radicalism in England, as well as on the French and American Revolutions; the rise of "popular occultism" in the work of the cabalistic socialist, Eliphas Levi; spiritualism and its links to the early Women's Movement; Theosophy and Indian self-government; the 'progressive' occultism of the fin-de-siecle; the Great Game and the search for Shambhala; the birth of the counterculture in the early 1900s; matriarchy, myth and the rise of Nazism; Rene Schwaller du Lubicz and anti-Semitism; Rene Guenon, Traditionalism, and the retreat from the modern world; the magical fascism of Julius Evola; and Mircea Eliade's links to the far-right politics of the Legion of the Archangel Michael.
One of the central themes of the book is the idea that, contrary to popular belief, occult politics does not always mean far-right or fascist politics, and I devote some time to dispelling the myths surrounding the "occult roots" of National Socialism. I argue that there has been a "progressive," enlightened occult politics too, perhaps most clearly seen in Annie Besant's key role in Indian independence, but also in the efforts of figures like Rudolf Steiner to introduce a more spiritually oriented current into early 20th century European politics.
Nevertheless, following WWI, occult politics takes a decidedly right turn, with important figures like du Lubicz and Evola espousing an outright fascist sensibility, and Guenon and Eliade joining in. Modernity itself becomes the central issue, and in this, far-right occultists, and far-left neo-Marxists become comrades in arms, both deriding the irredeemable wasteland of the modern world. This theme, of the retreat from modernity, seems to me a central challenge of our time.
* * *
Recently a disturbing book came to my attention, and as I read it, it became clear to me that perhaps the most significant development in what we may call “illuminated politics” in the twenty-first century is happening now in the United States. The fact that Americans will soon be electing a new president only adds a certain urgency and immediacy to this concern. Some believe that with the end of the Bush administration, the influence of the Christian Right on American politics will wane. Yet the Nazis dropped below the radar after Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923; a decade later they were in power.
If I’m beating a dead horse here, I ask the reader’s indulgence. The book in question is American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2007). In it, Chris Hedges, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, paints a troubling picture of the rise of what he argues may be a form of American-Christian fascism. This isn’t the kind of neo-Nazi “white power” sensibility that has been on the fringes of American society for some time. There are no swastikas, no Hitler salutes, no armbands or kitschy brown shirts associated with this group, although its appeal to an increasingly disenfranchised sector of American society is similar to the appeal National Socialism had to disenfranchised Germans in the early 1930s. The “American fascists” Hedges speaks of belong to a huge, well-organized, well-funded, and disturbingly politically well-placed movement dedicated to dismantling the secular state and replacing it with a kind of authoritarian theocracy, based on a numbingly literal reading (or misreading) of the Bible. Through schools, the media, pressure groups, and lobbyists, and through its growing presence in the American halls of political power, the Christian Right, Hedges argues, is gearing up to fundamentally (the pun would be inexcusable if the concern wasn’t so real) alter the American way of life, and through this, ultimately, the way of life for the rest of the world as well.
Like many encountered in this book, Hedges’ American fascists are unhappy with the modern world, especially the American modern world, which they see as decadent, depraved, and heading for disaster. Sexual license, homosexuality, feminism, liberalism, popular culture, the welfare state, foreigners, and a host of other ills are pulling what was once, in their eyes, a Christian nation down the tube. Although I hesitate to point out the parallels too strongly, as in the years leading up to National Socialism in Germany, there is among the followers of this belief a sense of some impending doom, some unavoidable cataclysm. Historians have argued that works like Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and others of a similar tone, which appeared in Germany in the years following World War I, helped prime the German psyche to accept the idea of some vast, irrevocable alteration in the shape of things and the need for strong leaders to find a way through the chaos. Hedges argues that the horror of September 11 created a similar sensibility in many Americans, and that the Christian Right is playing on the understandable fears that it and other terrorist attacks have generated. That the minds behind September 1l and other terrorist attacks, in the United States and elsewhere, are as narrow, fanatical, and oblivious to human suffering as those informing the Christian Right (at least according to Hedges) only adds to the sense that the affairs of the West in the early twenty-first century have reached, or are about to reach, a crisis point. A cliché, I know, but having looked in this book at a number of similar flashpoints in the last few centuries, it’s difficult not to recognize this.
I will leave readers of Hedges’ book to discover—if they are not already aware of it—the worryingly sophisticated network of media, educational, social, and political control that his American fascists already have in place and which, in the event of another September 1l or similar catastrophe, they will speedily use to offer and assume a beneficent leadership of the nation. But these “illuminated” totalitarians aren’t dependent on a terrorist attack, economic meltdown, or increasingly likely natural disaster (probably stemming from global warming) in order to come forth and take their rightful place as rulers of the land, although the downturn in the U.S. economy at the time of writing is the sort of thing they’re banking on. The central myth motivating their actions is the imminent end of the world as we know it, a version of the last days patched together from a selective reading of the Book of Revelation. At the heart of this is what they call the Rapture, when Jesus returns to earth and all his “true believers” are whisked up to heaven, while the rest of humanity is “left behind” to face an unimaginable ordeal of bloodcurdling torture and horror, the “time of tribulation.”
I say “unimaginable,” but this is incorrect, as a series of Christian Right bestsellers, collected under the title Left Behind, goes to some lengths to do just that. Reading the descriptions of the righteous violence meted out to those who refuse to let Jesus “into their hearts,” or to those who are not quite Christian enough, with bodies bursting, heads exploding, torsos slashed in two—all in very graphic detail—I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was a form of religious or apocalyptic pornography, a kind of sick spiritual sadism. Children have a front row seat in heaven while they watch their parents, who didn’t make the grade, receive the swift retribution of the Lord. Even Dante in his worst moments didn’t depict the punishments of hell with such obscene relish, but then Dante is a much better writer than the authors of these holy gore fests.
The books, which rival Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code in sales, have been made into films, featuring downgraded ex-Hollywood stars, and are big hits on the several highly popular Christian broadcasting networks. There are even video games based on them, with the righteous warriors of the Lord laying into the evil cohorts of the Antichrist.
That such books are written isn’t surprising. Similar works entertain the followers of “esoteric Hitlerism,” although in those, noble Aryan supermen defeat the repellent hordes of—well, you can fill in the blank. It’s saddening that such books are written, but it’s a free country, at least so far. What’s troubling is that so many Americans read them, and for all I know there are foreign translations too. As I point out earlier in this book, popular culture is often a better indication of a society’s beliefs than its “official” sources. If this is true, then a substantial segment of the American consciousness is anticipating an imminent holy crusade against all those that it believes are not “one of us.” Candidates for this bill are the usual suspects: homosexuals, feminists, Jews, “people of color,” liberals, socialists, Muslims (adherents of a “Satanic” religion), and so on. That America is currently not right with God is the Christian Right’s complaint, but come the Rapture, that will change. The belief in the “cleansing” power of religious violence as a means of political action, as if some holy “white tornado” will come and blow away all the social “dirt,” has recurred throughout Western civilization. Sadly, it’s an option that many, confronted with the complexities of modern life, find attractive. If the sales of the Left Behind fantasies are any indication, millions of Americans do. Violence as a means of ushering in some putative new age is, of course, not limited to the right. Marx fantasized about the bourgeoisie hanging from lampposts. But I don’t think an imminent Marxist upheaval is on the books just now. On a less violent but equally millennial note, many New Age advocates are anticipating some kind of radical change circa 2012. I haven’t done the math, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the prophets behind the Left Behind novels and those of Quetzalcoatl’s return find themselves jockeying for position come the last days.
One of the main targets of the Christian Right, Hedges argues, are what they call “secular humanists,” which basically means people who don’t accept Jesus in the way they do and who more or less accept modern life as it is, based on science and materialism, and, sadly, motivated for the most part by consumerism. Secular humanists are in the bad books of the Traditionalist followers of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, and as Mark Sedgwick points out in his book Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2004), some Traditionalist thought has informed some elements of Islamic fundamentalism. This isn’t surprising, as the Traditionalists and Islamic fundamentalists share a virulent disdain for the modern West.
Clearly, for anyone who thinks life should be about something more than reality TV, celebrity gossip, and having the F word misspelled on your clothes, the secular Western world leaves much to be desired. I include myself in this group. Like many people, there is much about the modern world I find unappealing. It’s for this reason that I find critics of it such as Guénon, Julius Evola (the esoteric doyen of the European far Right), and others of their sensibilities disturbing—not because of Evola’s obvious fascist sympathies or Guénon’s elitist ethos, but because many of their criticisms hit the mark. Unless a more moderate rethinking of modernity comes up with something soon, the more extreme alternatives offered by Guénon and others like him will seem appealing.
Notwithstanding Evola’s repellent racist views, it’s not surprising that some of his readers appreciated his belief that the only thing left was to “blow up” everything. Thankfully, the majority take this as a metaphor, and I’d bet that many of us feel something similar at times, although, again thankfully, we have the presence of mind not to succumb to this “purifying” release. To want to knock everything down and start anew has been a part of the human psyche for ages, probably from the beginning. It’s a form of metaphysical impatience, and most spiritual practices are aimed at learning how to curb it. But no society or nation can practice Zen or any other discipline; only people can. So it’s up to us to refrain from indulging in the delightful and stimulating exercise of smashing everything up.
Until recently I didn’t think of myself as particularly political, or at least as no more so than the next person who has to deal with a certain amount of politics in everyday life. I’m still not one to join marches, hit the barricades, or call for a revolution, and I believe that the best contribution that I, and people like me, can make is to try to understand things with as much clarity and insight as possible. Whether I manage to do that or not is another story. Now I think I can articulate to myself somewhat more clearly what I can call my political stance. Politics deals with the possible, not the ideal; it inhabits the messy world of becoming, not the stable world of being. Ideas from the world of being can inform the politics of becoming, but they cannot take its place, which means that as long as the world is the world, there will always be change. Attempts to force some ideal, whether right or left, into existence will fail, or their success will come at such a cost that failure would have been preferable. Watching the collapse of his beloved Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky had deep insight into what he called “the impossibility of violence...the uselessness of violent means to attain no matter what.” “I saw with undoubted clarity,” Ouspensky wrote, “that violent means and methods in anything whatever would unfailingly produce negative results, that is to say, results opposed to those aims for which they were applied.” This, Ouspensky said, wasn’t an ethical insight but a practical one. Violence simply doesn’t work. History, I think, bears Ouspensky out. If humankind and society are going to become “better,” it’s not going to happen overnight. As the I Ching counsels, “Perseverance furthers.” And that, as I say, takes patience.
Given that the political world isn’t an ideal one, if I were asked which I preferred, the modern world, which allows for shopping malls, dumbed-down culture, and consumer consciousness or a variant of the spiritual authoritarian theocracies proffered throughout the years, I’d have to come down on the side of modernity. With Leszek Kolakowski, I’m conservative because I believe that there is much to conserve and that the new is not always better than the old. But with Ernst Bloch I’m a radical, because I believe in the promise of the new, the potential for something that doesn’t yet exist to arrive. The challenge, of course, is how to combine the two until we find the Goldilocks-like state of having things “just right.” Needless to say, this isn’t easy, and if ever achieved, is only temporary. When I think of the kind of spiritual society envisioned by René Schwaller de Lubicz and others, I can appreciate its appeal. I need only enter a shopping mall to do that. But it does seem to me an example of what the philosopher Karl Popper called a “closed society.” More than likely, I’m too much of a modern to desire a theocracy, however spiritual. I grew up on television, comic books, movies, and pop music, and my introduction to the Western esoteric tradition came through cheap paperbacks, not through meeting some mysterious emissary of an initiated elite. I also realized while writing this book that in my own life I exemplify the “rootless cosmopolitanism” that so many anti-modern thinkers find reprehensible. And not only the scary ones; C.G. Jung didn’t have much good to say about cities, and it wouldn’t be difficult to find in Jung’s remarks an echo of the Nazi “blood and soil” rhetoric. I’ve lived in three vast metropolises—New York, Los Angeles, and London —in two different countries on two different continents and have little, if any, connection to the soil or land outside of what can be found in the city. (When people ask about my “roots,” I explain that I don’t have them and think of myself as more of a spore.) I’m not arguing in favor of this and against the more rural life many antimodern critics celebrate. It’s simply turned out this way.
The modern secular world, for all its drawbacks, has in its favor its very messiness. It allows for all the things that antimodern critics and others, like myself, dislike. But its very messiness also allows for other things. If we’re going to have freedom—a loaded word, I know—we’re going to have to put up with some things we don’t care for. But we’ll also be free to pursue the things we do care for. Even though much popular culture is at a numbingly stupefying level, I’m still able to turn off the television and pick up Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche or even Julius Evola. I’m not sure if in a world fashioned under Evolian principles I could do that. Chris Hedges argues that it is precisely the absence of community, meaningful popular culture, and an appreciable level of intelligence and integrity in modern American society that draws many people who feel “left out” into the ethos of Left Behind. But he doesn’t argue for some means of forcing these desirable goods onto society, of compelling us to be more intelligent and meaningful for our own sake. As Ouspensky saw, such compulsion wouldn’t work anyway. All that is left for people who care about these things is to do what they can to make them part of their lives. There’s no formula for this, no recipe, no things to put on your “to do” list. For all its emptiness and echoes of a wasteland, we’re still free in the modern world to “become who we are.” How we do this is up to us. If I have to put up with the messy stuff in order to do it, it seems a fair trade.
Photo collage by Commandante Agi, courtesy of Creative Commons license.