Monday, March 13, 2017

Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen by Gary Lachman

History, but not "just" history

Before I get to this book, please indulge me while I engage in a couple of brief tangents that I will tie into the book review in due course. First, I hear people say something to the effect that “people shouldn’t bring religion into politics,” or “in America, our Constitution says we should keep religion and politics separate.” I find these statements well-intentioned and understandable, but nevertheless absurd. Religion and politics have been conjoined since humans conceived of each, and they have been intimate since the dawn of civilization (agriculture and cities). One can argue that as a part of the modern project these concerns should be separated, and in some measure, they address different domains. But they are overlapping Venn diagrams, each claiming a common territory. Religion, broadly conceived, is the stuff of ultimate concerns: how we relate to those powers greater than us (e.g., God, gods, Nature, the Dharma, the Tao, etc.) and how we relate to each other (morality broadly conceived). Politics often addresses the mundane: “Where should we put this road?” and “How much should we levy for taxes this year?” (I was a city attorney for three decades.) In short, the “who gets what, when, and how” of Harold Laswell. But politics also addresses fundamental issues of life and death, such as definitions and punishments for murder, the legality of abortion, declarations of war—the big issues. In short, politics entails both the sacred and the profane; it involves the ethical and the practical. Thus, I can’t imagine keeping religion and politics separate. It’s impossible. On the other hand, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ..”  In other words, what it requires is the separation of church and state, the respective institutions of religion and politics. The First Amendment prohibits the state from interfering in religious belief and practice, regardless of whether conducted within an institutional framework (church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.) or arising from the beliefs and practices of any one person. This constitutionally mandated separation of government from religion provides an essential safeguard for the individual, and it protects both religious institutions and government.  Entanglements of church and state create problems for churches and states. 

My next digression involves some post-election communications about Trump and Clinton. In short, one person with whom I had some contact argued that Trump deserved to win over Clinton because Clinton was in cahoots (my term, not his) with “the Illuminati,” such as George Soros. What? I, in my Enlightenment bubble, thought that such nonsense was something that I’d encounter only among the truly wigged-out. Not so. There isn’t a bubble out there; there are more bubbles than we can begin to count. I prefer mine (and I hope that it doesn’t create too distorting a lens), but we need to pop some of these others.

Having allowed myself these two digressions, let me turn to this book and explain why I found my digressions fitting in the circumstances. Gary Lachman’s Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen (2008) is about the intersection of religion (or spirituality, if you prefer a wider net) and politics. However,  instead of the usual roster of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, he’s writing about those who inhabit the fringes of those religions and some who draw upon entirely different creeds. If Lachman had shared any jokes in this book, they wouldn’t have set up with a “priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar,” but “a magician, an adept, and a charlatan walk into a bar.” But unlike the mainstream set-up, where perhaps a Roman collar and a yarmulke would help us distinguish who is who among the mainstream three, among the three occult figures, you couldn’t know who is who from any first glimpse. (N.B. Don’t take this analogy too far; we can’t necessarily tell who is a charlatan in the occult group and only by process of elimination can we identify the minister in the first. Protestants can be so nondescript in public.) The occult has its roots in many of the mainstream traditions, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, in addition to other traditions (Gnosticism, Hermeticism, etc.), but by definition, the occult remains out of site and the esoteric reserved for the few. Lachman argues that the occult traditions became more secretive with the advent of the modern world when science and materialism (Newton’s interests notwithstanding) became the dominant ideology. With this tidal shift in culture, concerns about the soul, mind, and consciousness became suspect and began to migrate underground. Thus, the shadow side of religion becomes, even more, a matter of fear and fascination.

The list of occult groups identified and discussed by Lachman is impressive. From early modern times, we get the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, and the Illuminati. All of these groups clothed themselves in secrecy, which, in addition to practical concerns about repression by ruling authorities, makes each organization more attractive to members (exclusiveness) and more fascinating to outsiders. Also, one can’t help but note that these groups seem to be populated by the elite, not simply (or even primarily) the aristocracy, but the educated elite as well. For instance, both Descartes and Leibniz are associated with the Rosicrucians. (An aside: isn’t Leibniz one of the most brilliant minds of all time?) The elite membership in these organizations certainly enhanced both their prestige and popular resentment of against them.

But how influential—or even powerful—were these early modern occult groups? In the end, the pyramid with the eye on the dollar bill and George Washington’s well-known Freemasonry membership notwithstanding, these groups were not that influential. If you want to gauge the thoughts and beliefs that guided the American Revolution and Founding, you’d do better to study Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment, Montesquieu, the Atlantic Republican tradition, and the English Whig tradition than  Freemasonry. Add the political economy of slavery (as sadly one must), and you have a strong sense of the thinking behind America’s political origins.  Occult organizations also had their fingerprints on the French Revolution, on both the Right and the Left (the time in which these terms emerged), but no group (occult or not) was in control completely or for long until Napolean put an end to the chaos. The ideas behind sea-change of the French Revolution have more to do with Voltaire and the philosophes and their arch-critic Rousseau than any occult dogma or action.

The intersection of the occult and the political continued into the 19th century. At the level of individuals and events, adherents to occult organizations and beliefs have a role, but in the more encompassing mix of culture and political beliefs, their effect is hard to discern. The ideas of Marx and Mill and mainstream religions and philosophies are the most influential. Of course, many small sectarian groups, both political and occult (and sometimes overlapping) populate history since the French Revolution. Zionists and anti-Semitic schemers, utopian socialists and free-love advocates, syndicalists and social welfare groups—experimenters (good and ill) of all types abound as society goes through continued upheavals. As Lachman notes, inquiries into the spiritual, the non-material, and consciousness preceded modernity (and are as old as human culture), but in times of great change and turbulence, these concerns become acuter and more widespread. And beginning in the late 18th century, the turmoil of politics, the wildfires of revolution, the conflagration of wars, imperialism and colonialism, along with changes in technology and culture, vastly increased the total wealth of Western nations and altered the composition of society while dramatically changing the culture. This level of change was—is—unprecedented in human history. But in contrast to the headlong changes in our lived environment, changes in shared consciousness, particularly at the deeper individual levels, seems to move at a much slower pace, taking the course of epochs, not months and years. Thus, to any extent that the occult or esoteric beliefs and practices might have had an effect would, by definition, be limited to an elite and could only disburse slowly through society. By contrast, changes in some religious practices can spread like wildfire through society, for instance, the changes of the Protestant Reformation and the Great Awakening, to provide just two examples. Thus, whatever legitimate hopes initiates might hold in times of great change, the odds are against any significant influence—not to mention control—over events. Thus, for all of the aspiration, the influence of the occult and esoteric remains limited.

But despite the limited influence, the role of occult and esoteric thinkers remains intriguing. Within periods that I’m acquainted with, the footprints bear following. Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists were proponents of Indian independence at the beginning in the late 19th century. In Romania, the great scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, had sympathies with Romanian fascist and nationalist groups through the Second World War. Finally, at present, the president’s aide Stephen Bannon cites Julius Evola (along with Lenin) as an intellectual mentor. Evola was an Italian esoteric thinker and critic of modernity who promoted Italian fascism. Thus, while esoteric and occult thinkers certainly have not guided events nor have they been at the forefront of the intellectual currents shaping modern life, neither have their beliefs and personages been negligible. And contemplate this: you may conclude that Stephen Bannon is not the president and that his beliefs, no matter how seemingly fringe or outrageous, are of little consequence. But understand that the man he serves is marked by an extreme intellectual vacuity, and the contents of the House of Horrors that fill Bannon’s mind will undoubtedly—have undoubtedly—streamed in to fill that vacuum.

Before I conclude my review, I need to admit something. I feel a bit guilty about reviewing this book. The guilt comes from the fact that while reading it—and other books and articles by Lachman—I find myself mumbling “hum-hum," making an electronic note of a “yes” to a passage, and generally finding that his comments—never intrusive and or heavy-handed—reflect many of my beliefs and conclusions. I enjoyed this book, like the others, because he channels and expresses so many of my thoughts and perceptions. It’s reassuring the find someone who shares many of your viewpoints, but it may take the edge off of my criticism. If so, so be it; you’re forewarned. 

To illustrate this point, let me quote from his conclusion, where, as in the Introduction, Lachman allows himself to comment more extensively. In the “Last Words” he writes:

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, I find much about the modern world unappealing. It's for this reason that I find critics of it like Julius Evola and René Guénon [both “Traditionalists”] 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 attractive. 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.
Lachman, Gary. Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen (p. 232). Quest Books. Kindle Edition.

While I’m not well enough acquainted with either Evola or Guenon to endorse their critiques of modernity, I appreciate the sentiment. (See my review of William Ophuls’s book Requiem for Modern Politics and my review of Ian McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary--also a Lachman favorite--for examples.) But as someone who’s trying to figure out how he can call himself a “Burkean revolutionary” (I’m still working out how I can transform this from a blatant oxymoron into a revealing paradox), I share Lachman’s appreciation of the critique and his desire not to destroy the world in order to perfect it. I didn’t think Donald Trump would be elected president because I didn’t believe enough American were willing to (even metaphorically) “blow up the system,” which Trump is attempting to do.

I also share Lachman’s conception of politics and political thinking:

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 it be right or left, into existence will fail, or success will come at such a cost that failure would have been preferable. While watching the collapse of his beloved Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, 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.

Lachman continues:

            Given that the political world isn't an ideal one, if I was 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 encountered in this book, 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.”


To all of the above, I say “Amen.” Lachman is not only a knowledgeable guide in the field of the occult, the esoteric, and of consciousness studies, but he also proves himself a responsible thinker in the quotidian world of politics. To borrow from the candidates, “I approve this message.”  

One final point. In a year-end blog post, in addition to announcing a new book scheduled for publication this spring about the imagination (including more on Owen Barfield), Lachman announced the receipt of a new commission. He reports:

I’ve also just received a commission from my US publisher, Tarcher Penguin, now Tarcher Perigee, for Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. The book will look at the influence ‘mental science’ and ‘positive thinking’ has had on Trump’s rise to power, and will explore the links between the new ‘alt.right’ movement within the political far right and the political philosophy of the Italian esotericist Julius Evola. I will also look at the influence Alexandr Dugin, a radical political theorist influenced by Evola, ‘chaos magick’ and Martin Heidegger, has on the Russian President Vladimir Putin. In different ways both Trump and Putin seek to destabilize the west and reshape the political and economic map of Europe. With this in mind I will look at the possible connection – if any – between the European Union and a strange political philosophy that began in the late nineteenth century and according to some reports had a hidden but effective influence on European politics. This is what is known as Synarchy, the complete opposite of anarchy. Anarchy means no government; Synarchy means total government. I write about Synarchy in Politics and the Occult  and Dark Star Rising will pick up my account of the occult influence on modern politics from where I left it in 2008.
To borrow a term that I picked up from Lachman, I’m “chuffed” at this prospect. (I hope I’ve used that correctly.) I also hope that by the time of publication that it’s not as topical as it is at the moment, but I’m not banking on that. And even if we are so lucky, we’re going to be trying to discern what happened for some time, and Lachman is sure to provide fascinating insights into our unsettling course of events.