Keith418 is one of the most controversial figures in modern Thelema. His interviews on the defunct Thelema: Coast to Coast were often rigorous and demanding, yet highly contentious. Keith418 has also documented thinkers on both the radical right and the far left often comparing those thinkers to the problematic thought in the Occult community. The parallels are discomforting to all involved.
C.Derick Varn: You and I have been talking about the way class affects groups in ways that people want to remain silent on. You often talk about this by comparing the left, particularly the old Maoists, to people in various occult communities. What do you think the parallels are and why do you think people are so unwilling to realistically talk about class?
Keith418: Class is just a huge taboo in America. People usually act as though class either doesn’t exist or -if they acknowledge it at all – insist that it isn’t influential. Many seem to assume that everyone has some kind of claim on being “middle class.” But the determining features of social class are as important as consciousness of them is repressed. This kind of “occult influence” should influence occultists more, but since most of the people in the occult community are more invested in escaping from reality that examining it it’s not surprising that class and the ontology of personal taste isn’t a bigger topic.
The remaining revolutionary communists and Maoists have abandoned class consciousness and class discussions, I suspect, because these topics are rejected by their audience. Like the occultists, people just find these conversations too painful. It reminds people of a kind of grim objective reality – the way they appreciate or don’t appreciate things, the way they dress, act, read, work, enjoy the arts, etc. is less a matter of personal choice than anyone wants to believe. Those on the left, Maoists included, never want to contradict and dismiss the “American Dream” of endless social advancement. Telling people who are working class that their children and grandchildren will be working class too – that they won’t advance into the middle class and beyond – is just too painful a conversation to have.
I would have hoped that occultists outside of the United States, in Europe and elsewhere, might be more amendable to looking at the way class has an impact on occultism and paganism, but this hasn’t happened. Again, I think people see occult work as a kind of respite or refuge from these sorts of problems. It’s too bad, but I, along with some other people, have been trying to get people to look at these questions for years and no one I know has gotten very far.
Any discussion of social class carries with the threat of what Pierre Bourdieu calls “symbolic violence.” This violence reminds people who of is on the top and who is on the bottom. People seek to avoid this kind of violence and they avoid discussions that remind them of the real power relationships that are revealed through it. At the same time, uncovering power relations and examining them requires that we ”go there.” This kind of “uncovering” is essential to any occult work – which is always about making the secret or concealed known. I suspect that very little really important occult work is being done right now because people are unable to risk this kind of symbolic violence. “As above, so below.” If people can’t, or won’t. bring
themselves to look at how their class influences and determines their tastes and values then how can they ever be expected to do higher occult work?
C.D.V.: How can they be expected to do much of any kind of honest work? This brings me to another question, a lot of times organizations–let’s say an O.T.O Lodge or a chapter of the SPUSA–have leadership that systematically refuses to engage in conversations that would make them more sound. Sometimes you see the leadership refusing to raise dues even when members are willing to pay it. Sometimes you see a refusal to engage honestly dealing with critiques and using them for improvement. Do you think this is related to class functions? Or is there something else at play?
Keith418: I think the contradiction exists between the basic materials – which are very critical of middle class values, investments, and beliefs – and the people running these organization who, in many cases, are in charge simply because they have attained to stable, middle class existences. How can they then struggle against their own values and their own ontology? Socialism and Thelema are both revolutionary ideologies that have become co-opted by reformists and people who believe – whether they will admit it or not – in a gradualist approach.
I often think that these groups become infused with reformist and revisionist tendencies when the status quo is seen as acceptable to the people involved. Socialism isn’t a life or death matter now for people in the West – neither are most Thelemites really all that unhappy with their own status quo. The impetus for a radical change can only arrive when people are really profoundly unhappy with the way things are – and are ready to advance and support a deep criticism of the status quo. Until that point, the reformists and revisionists are likely to be in charge. Aleister Crowley was nauseated with his contemporaries and his society, but today’s Thelemites simply are not. Lenin and Mao were bound and determined to overthrow their societies – but today’s socialists? Not so much. The reformists and gradualists in both camps are naturally going to be afraid of the real thing – and the more they want to accommodate themselves to the status quo, the less interested they are going to be in challenging it with either Thelema or socialism.
Now, certain individuals may reject this migration away from a real challenge, but these same individuals are very likely to be in conflict with those seeking only reform and those adopting a revisionist line. Until those opposing the revisionist line hit a critical point in either their numbers (with the socialists) or the extent and degree of their influence (with the Thelemites), the chances of them changing anything are pretty low.
C.D.V.: To focus on matters of spiritually for a minute. Why do you so many Thelemites try to maintain links to other religions, or, in the particular case I thinking about, to Buddhism. What is that about?
Keith418: They are threatened by the Thelemic materials and are seeking to dilute them with older, or other systems and ideologies that they think express values they are more comfortable with. Most of the people calling themselves Thelemites really have grave misgivings and conflicts about Thelema and what Crowley actually taught. Anyone looking at the discourse within the Thelemic community will immediately see evidence of this kind of conflict. Mixing in other religions and systems is a way to calm that sense of conflict and contradiction.
Many Westerners see Buddhism, or want to see Buddhism, as being a tolerant, liberal, non-judgmental “progressive” system – with an exotic and aesthetically appealing flavor that entices people who reject traditional Western religions. The people in the Thelemic community are just as susceptible to this kind of approach to Buddhism as anyone else is. Crowley himself rejected Buddhism, but the people you are talking about usually insist that he didn’t understand it as well as they do.
C.D.V.: My experience with Buddhism is that most people–in America and in Asia-don’t really take the work it requires to meet the goals seriously, and in Euro-American also tend to see it as a pre-cursor to post-structural humanism. I remember listening to a Dhamma speech by an Ajahn who said that “Most Americans get their Buddhism from William James. They don’t see that the interconnectedness was NOT a good thing.” It strikes me as something similar to what you see as going on with Thelema. Are most Thelemites looking at Crowley through Gerald Gardner or pop psychology books about the Dalai Lama?
Keith418: The irony here is acute when you consider that Crowley wrote Magick Without Tears in order to lay out his ideas in the clearest, simplest language he could. His searing disagreements with equality, democracy, as well as his support for selfishness, his rejection of herd thinking, etc. are all to be found there – expressed in utterly unambiguous language. Yet, modern Thelemites still need “beginner books” to “understand Thelema.” My feeling is that they want to be reassured and provided with ways to avoid Crowley’s harsh and uncompromising criticisms of the values they regard as “common sense” – and which they accept as so natural that they aren’t even characterized as an ideology they can recognize as such. When you reach an impasse like that, a “lack of agreement” often is phrased as a “lack of understanding.”
Both Buddhism and Thelema are expected to conform to what people already believe – rather than the other way around. The project goes from changing the individual to changing the ideology – and anything can be enlisted in that task. This is revisionism.
C.D.V.: Why are they Thelemites then? There are tons of religions based off of watered down versions of Crowley already? Essentially Gardnerian Wicca is seems to have more than a little relationship as does Scientology.
Keith418: These are questions we often ask ourselves. I think one explanation is that the smaller wiccan groups are often poorly organized and don’t have the same kind of structure the Order does. I also suspect that people are attracted to Thelema – sometimes from an aesthetic sense – and often get very involved with the group and its social dynamics before they realize the full implications in the basic materials. They then have to leave the group or stay and seek to change it into something they can accept. This situation tends to make the community dysfunctional. You get people who have been involved for many years, and who are even in leadership positions, who evidence a profound distaste for Crowley and the basics of Thelema.They resent being in this situation and they can’t get out of it. They have often invested too much time and emotional energy to start over with anything else.
C.D.V.: That sounds like cognitive dissonance pure and simple. Wouldn’t it make more sense to erect barriers to entry?
Keith418: But how many people would that bar? Who would erect the barriers? If most of the people, and the leaders, are in denial about this process and these conflicts, then no one would see the need. Besides, the confused and conflicted need allies to help them reconcile the material to their own values and demands. Barriers to entry would deprive them of friends who would share their perspective.
The middle class people in the occult community always seek middle allies and defend them. Part of this is a comfort issue – they want to be around people like them. But it’s also very practical. They need people who can show up on time, pay dues, and be “responsible.” If they tell these potential allies to adopt Thelema or leave, then their potential allies and friends will all be gone.
Additionally, many of the working class and lumpen members are using Thelema as a kind of class ladder. In some cases, it mimics the ”academic” communities they are excluded from. In other cases, they nurse an inchoate hope that an involvement in occultism will somehow help them “move up.” Often “mentoring” in the occult community is really about the middle class people imparting their skills and values to the people under them. When the working class people reach a new point in their social aspirations they understand that occult activity isn’t helping them any longer – and could even be seen as a detriment – and they often quit.
C.D.V.: Does this lead organizations to have sort of natural life cycles?
Keith418: I hesitate to say too much about this – as we don’t always know the twists and turns, as well as the chance for schisms and rebirths. Many of the Maoist groups collapsed and – after suffering schisms – then coalesced into other formations and died. How long can a commitment to a revolutionary ideology and practice be maintained? Do people “age out” of this kind of thing naturally? What are the exceptions?
A Thelemic leader told me once that he was convinced that magick was ”a young man’s game.” This could explain the older leaders moving away from a more confrontational and critical POV. It could also explain the move towards accommodation and revisionism that we see over and over again on the left.
C.D.V.: Do you seem similar happenings on the right?
Keith418: On the radical right? Certainly. Both the radical left and the radical right are united in their rejection of the status quo and share at least an initial disinclination to accept reformist and gradualist measures. I have observed the same aging out process on the far right. As people get older they retreat from the fray and are more willing to make compromises. Some, however, do not.
How much are these struggles tempered and influenced by the historical moment they find themselves in? In an era of rising expectations, revolt and radical changes seem more imminent that they might in an periods of lowered expectations. These factors might change the way people decide to compromise, or even abandon, their efforts to create change.
C.D.V.: I have been wondering about this as well. Is this push for “beginnner’s books” in Thelema coming from below or above or both? In the OTO there has been much discussion about the difficulty of getting texts out, but there seems to be a new beginners book every few months. Is it a simple profit movement or is it encouraged by the leadership?
Keith418: I think we see the “beginner book” phenomena arising from a number of places. First, most of the pagan/occult community isn’t well educated.This means they have few tools to bring to advanced occult texts and Crowley’s erudition is almost impossible for them to penetrate. Second, the “beginner books” are quite biased in that they seek to tone down Crowley’s radical and transgressive positions and tacitly support a reading of Thelema that conforms more with liberal left viewpoints. The people who don’t need the bowdlerized beginner books, and who reject them and depend purely on Crowley are often at odds with those who are dependent on people “translating” Crowley for them.
The leaders of all the Thelemic communities are engaged in an ideological migration away from Crowley. This migration is more or less explicitly acknowledged by the various leaders, depending on the group, but it’s a profound change and there are no exceptions. The ”beginner books” are part of this, as is the general disinclination to engage with Crowley’s transgressive teachings deeply and directly.There’s also trend towards an emphasis on a kind of “empty formalism” that also serves to distract people from the challenging material that troubles them and threatens herd values. Instead of thinking about what the rituals mean, they focus on endless discussions of line readings, stage direction and an ever-increasing kind of Talmudic minutiae.
C.D.V.: In a way that reminds of undergraduate texts on critical theory which clean up the problematic bits. Funny how universal those tensions and tactics are. Do you think a lot of Occultists confuse lore trivia with education?
Keith418: In the occult community, people tend to play little games with gematria and I often suspect that this has become a pseudo-intellectual distraction and a way to avoid looking at more transgressive problems – as well as a way to dodge addressing practical concerns. Explaining, for example, how “120″ is the “secret number” of one ritual or another is a lot easier than figuring out how to raise money from people who don’t feel like they should contribute, or looking at why the Crowley books have gone out of print, or why none of the major Thelemic groups owns any temple spaces. You can always find people willing to have a discussion about the former topic – it’s much harder to find anyone interested in pursuing the latter subjects.
I also compare this kind of distraction and avoidance to differing ideas of what “freedom” means. To too many, freedom means nothing more than a “freedom” to choose between available and recognized options. Very few want to criticize the range of options and this limited definition of freedom at all. When Crowley is employed to criticize the nature of the status quo and modern institutions and values – democracy, egalitarianism, etc. – he is rejected. I see this rejection on the left as people move towards revisionism, compromise, and accommodation.
C.D.V.: Or in other words, moving towards middle class liberalism. You like to get people to read Paul Fussell’s book on class which talks about how there is a drift towards the lower middle class over time in middle class culture. Do you see that as being related to this?
Keith418: My effort to get people to read Fussell, which is a sort of “beginner book” version of Bourdieu’s work (irony!), was to attack the denial of social class and the way people tended to dismiss its steady and determining influence. I noticed that after reading the book, they didn’t argue with me about the existence and importance of class any longer. They didn’t want to discuss the topic, but at least they no longer denied it. Instead, people used Fussell as a kind of ”aspirational” guide. One reader told me that, after reading the book, he threw away all his short-sleeved shirts with collars. Rather than rejecting middle class values, I actually think most occultists aspire to them – or seek to preserve them in the face of threats or criticism.
Crowley was extremely critical of the middle class. His kind of class criticism is rejected by nearly all modern Thelemites. This migration away from what he taught isn’t accidental.
C.D.V.: What do you think was particular to Crowley’s background that enabled him to be so transgressive?
Keith418:Some of the clues may be in his strict upbringing. If he was able to withstand that kind of effort at forced conformity, then there is very little that he wasn’t capable of questioning later on. Paradoxically, an overly permissive and undisciplined environment may produce people more inclined to unquestioning conformity and herd thinking. It’s not hard to see the link between a personal insistence on independence and a corresponding cultivation of self-discipline. Crowley himself wrote that 90% (“at a guess”) of Thelema was self-discipline. What happens when you have a generation or two with no strong sense of self-discipline? How do people then relate to Thelema and what can they really do with it? The only options they may have is to try to turn it into something else. The problem is that Crowley’s writings are both extant and voluminous and they explicitly refute these kinds of substitution strategies and revisionism.
The left has the same problems. Marx recognized that the revolution needed a trained, disciplined working class. If this revolutionary class doesn’t exist, and if people do not arise with the kinds of qualities, then the revolution can’t happen. The real revolutions needs a kind of subject. It can’t “make do” with anything or anyone.
C.D.V.: Which makes the practice of yoga and some of the more extreme disciplinary practices in Crowley’s writings makes sense. I can’t remember the specific Liber, but the practice of limiting yourself and making your infractions with a razor seemed like sort of effective if extreme practice. I have noticed I haven’t seen a lot of Thelemites with the razor marks though. Do you think commodity comforts have something to do with ignoring this?
Keith418: There are ways for performing that practice (Liber Liber III vel Jugorum) without the razor. Some use a rubber band or make lighter scratches. Real magical work takes a serious cultivation of self-discipline and this is harder and harder for people – as you suggest – raised in a consumer culture. I suspect that for many people Thelemic and magical attainment is more of an egalitarian, religious entitlement than something they have to struggle and really work for. Thelema is, in any case, either a spur for greater levels of self-discipline or, in more and more cases, a rationale for avoiding self-discipline and a spiritual ratification of the present personal status quo.
C.D.V.: Do you think this is similar to how so many American Buddhists seem to reject even the idea of Enlightenment as a real possibility that would change things? Many Buddhist teachers have complained about this to me.
Keith418: We live in an age in which it’s harder and harder for people to imagine alternatives. This kind of difficulty afflicts both political and religious thinking. The choices become narrower, the option diminish, and people are less and less willing to ponder, or support, radical alternatives. Leaders – in any movement – have to recognize these circumstances and address them forthrightly. It’s not something that people generally want to be reminded of.It’s certainly depressing, and there are no easy answers or quick fixes.
C.D.V.: Recently you have been talking the difference between sophistication and raw intelligence in some private conversations we have. You see a lot of lack of sophistication in the dialogue. Why do you think that is?
Keith418: It’s not difficult to see a difference between raw intelligence and sophisticated thinking. There are plenty of bright people who aren’t very sophisticated and any number of sophisticated people who aren’t bright. A major factor here is how much cultural capital people possess and much of that is due to their social class. iI you meet a person who is really sophisticated and, at the same time, not exactly a genius, then it’s usually because they come from an upper class background. If occultists emerge out of the working class, the lumpen, and the lower middle class, then they usually aren’t very sophisticated and their occult interests may reflect an effort to find a sort of substitute for the kind of cultural capital they have been denied. On the other hand, very bright occultists are usually painfully unsophisticated. If they are stuck in IT jobs, or other fields that require a certain amount of focused intelligence but do not demand any sort of advanced cultural capital, then they too will be deprived of many essential tools.
It’s easy to find people in the occult community rejecting deep, sophisticated approaches to occultism, but for an individual without a great deal of cultural capital, I am afraid that most of what someone like Crowley wrote will simply be impenetrable. Again, this may be why we see the endless popularity of one “beginner book” after another. These appallingly pedestrian texts are nothing other than attempts to recast advanced and challenging occultism for the unsophisticated and for those who struggle with Crowley’s erudition. His sophistication means that, for them, his work is opaque.
In addition, collecting books, and obsessing over them, is vastly different from studying them closely… and even close study is different from practice and application. We often see occultists fetishizing and aspiring to academic careers and I think, for many, this reveals their own transparent class aspirations. Unfortunately, modern academic work, in the humanities, is often nothing more than increasingly crude efforts at social engineering along liberal-left and humanistic lines. This kind of indoctrination leads people away from taking anyone as transgressive as Crowley was too seriously and it tends to make people believe that the “safe” and/or “respectable” way to investigate occultism is in some kind of purely academic approach. I kept waiting for people to return from advanced academic work to lead the occult community, but this hasn’t happen so far and I am disinclined to ever expect it now. the work they do in academic setting devalues the occult community they came out of. They don’t go back to it after being “trained.”
C.D.V.: Are their thinkers, other than Crowley, do you think people avoid because of their humanistic bias?
Keith418: The contemporary occult climate is very influenced by PC thinking and it carefully avoids any challenge to contemporary taboos. Crowley, for example, had nothing but praise for Nietzsche. He’s a saint in Crowley’s Gnostic Mass and is also referred to by Crowley as a ”prophet.” But, at best, most people calling themselves Thelemites can barely handle lesser interpreters like Ayn Rand. The closest any thinker gets to explicitly challenging the value of democracy, equality, compassion and any of the other mainstays of liberal humanism, the more those in the occult community seem to instinctively steer clear. If you try to illustrate Crowley’s criticism of equality and democracy with reference to similar thinkers, you can count on receiving immediate push-back or worse.
This part of a movement away from the kinds of transgressive explorations that were more common 20+ years ago. People in the ’80s explored all sorts of extreme ideas and radical thinkers. Amok Press and other publishers carried shocking and disturbing books and people were more open to these kinds of explorations. Now, folks are really reluctant to push the boundaries. I think this indicates the way they have been indoctrinated to unquestioningly accept a placid, stable, liberal-left world view and its corresponding ideologies. If Crowley is seen as deviating from those agendas, which any close reading of his texts will immediately prove that he does, then he has to be altered to be suit current fashionable beliefs and values… or tossed under the bus.
C.D.V.: There seems to be a movement to make Nietzsche safe as well. So many people trying to render him a humanist. It’s frustrating. Why do you think Ayn Rand is so popular in those circles? Elitism for the masses?
Keith418: I don’t want to suggest that Rand is all that popular in the occult community. I know only a small handful of people who are fans, but I suspect that she makes a kind of derivative Nietzschean system of values more palatable for the middle classes and for those who haven’t really studied Western philosophy and political science that deeply. You need a background in Western philosophy to grasp Nietzsche and you don’t need that at all for Rand.
Nietzsche is too important for people in academia to ignore, and too explosive and too threatening to approach on his own terms. Therefore, some alteration and dilution must be attempted. It’s unfortunate, but in the current climate it is not surprising. This kind of reaction is the same when it comes to Crowley in the Thelemic community and also looks like the hegemonic push towards revisionism on the left. It’s universal.
C.D.V.: What, if any, hope do you have for a change in the atmosphere of the occult community?
Keith418: I don’t have a lot of hope at the moment. I once thought that a kind of Internet-fueled occult cultural revolution might occur, with many people joining in an advancing kind of exploration and discussion that would be assisted by all the new access to information that was once difficult or even impossible to find. Instead, I think, occultists were presented with a whole series of problems that they had been steadily avoiding before – ideological conflicts and fractures, educational deficiencies, a history of organizational failures, etc. This had led to a kind of stalemate in which very little improves and conversations become curtailed or are nothing more than the rote repetitions of calming platitudes, dominated by the lowest common denominator.
I also didn’t count on the new kind of conformity orientation we see so much of – as well as the results of the poor educations most people receive now. When you combine ignorance and herd thinking, a reluctance to truly “question authority,” it’s hard to see too much progress on the immediate horizon.
But who can predict an event? A trigger might come along, or an influence might appear, that proves catastrophic to the current status quo. Until then we will continue to find more teachers under the ground than walking around on it. For the motivated, the possibilities that exist now could constitute a “golden age.” I am encouraging those who are ready to take full advantage of it.
C.D.V.: Anything to say in closing?
“The spiritual decay of the earth is so advanced that people risk exhausting that reserve of spiritual force which enables them just to see and take stock of this decay […]. This simple observation has nothing to do with cultural pessimism: for in every corner of the world the darkening of the world, the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the massification of man, the contemptuous suspicion of everything which is creative and free, have reached such proportions that such childlike expressions as pessimism and optimism have long become laughable.” – Heidegger
On Hegel, Religion, Occultism, and Political Ideology
C. Derick Varn: I suppose we should discuss much of from our private discussions. Your interview is one of the most referenced on my site and generated a lot of controversy among the Thelemites I know. Why do you think this is?
Keith418: There is a certain kind of person involved with Thelema who just gets excited about ANY mention of magick, Thelema, or Crowley they happen to come across. The mere mention of these subjects is something they seem to find somehow validating – usually no matter what the context. I suspect this phenomena is in effect here. I also think that there is a great deal of tension that exists around the question of whether Thelema really is about egalitarianism and altruism or not. Anyone who pokes at that problem, or contradiction – however you want to characterize it – is going to draw some notice.
The secret fear many people seem to have is that, try as they must, Thelema just cannot be rehabilitated; that it is intrinsically “dangerous” – and “dangerous” in all the ways that nice, PC, middle class people would judge something to be a threat and a danger. The Thelemic community loves the people who lay that inarticulate, but still palpable, fear to rest just as it despises the people who reinvigorate their anxieties and who summon their worries back into new forms. They hate being reminded of their conflicts.
This community really is very thin-skinned – which I think it a mark of its basic fragility; a kind of fragility that reveals itself in denial and in organizational and personal turmoil created by its astounding degree of ongoing and epidemic cognitive dissonance. This sort of sensitivity to criticism and analysis means that anyone who consistently points to the community’s problems and short-comings is seen as a pariah. When you combine that with the usual unwillingness to look at class and the limitations it places on people, and the way it is often so determining, I can’t say I really shocked at the reaction. I’d be more surprised if it didn’t get that reaction.
C.D.V.: You and I have been talking about despite at the anger at the “system” very few people are willing to look at the problems of middle class values themselves. For example, you and I both have been openly musing on whether #Occupy wants to move beyond the prior status quo or just get bribed back into accepting it. There seems to be a lot unaddressed in the we are the 99% slogan for all its strengths. What is your current take on this?
Keith418: On the one hand, the ’60s left protests were very much about fighting against the middle class – its prejudices, its conformity-orientation, its lack of life and constriction. Youth advertising plays into that – the pendulum in Americans advertising invariably swings between the laboratory and the carnival. The status quo is mom and dad and their boring, authority positions and values. But how does one craft a criticism of the middle class – and its banalities and trivial preoccupations – in the wake of the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s? Does one reiterate it and seem dated? Or does one craft some new critical approach? If the middle class is under attack from the banks and from globalization, then is it an ally to the cause? Or still an enemy?
A friend noted that the current movement seeks to save the people of the middle class, but not the middle class itself per se. I see what he’s getting at here, but I think this twist sidesteps the question.
C.D.V.: Recently I read something you wrote a few years ago comparing Herbert Marcuse to James Burnham. In brief, why do you think these two thinkers are really important to revisit at the moment?
Keith418: Both describe the way ownership no longer necessarily means control – that control has passed to highly trained managers, bureaucrats, consultants, experts, and other forces that go beyond mere ownership- as it has been defined in the past. How do we manage the managers? Who, in the end, manages them? Do the managers manage themselves? There is an incessant push, that both writers noted, towards giving this layer more and more decision-making power and authority. On the one hand, there is the fear that they will abuse this power. On the other hand, these same figures promise to give us what we want and sustain what we have. In a highly technologically advanced society, with a dense population, this managerial class rises to the fore – either through government, through corporations, through academia, through the media, through non-profit groups, or through blurry and complex combinations of all of these fronts.
Often managerial forces subvert the “political.” Political choices become replaced with a managed process governed by experts. They make the choices and we go along with them. Do people want more politics? Or do they want to, instead, sit back and let this class provide for them and cede power to it in the process? On the one hand, there is a kind of weariness associated with political demands. Being politically active and informed takes work and requires sacrifices. Isn’t it easier to just let the managers handle it? The managerial elites often project themselves as disinterested parties who have attained a measure of scientific objectivity. This can’t be accurate, but their power depends on people believing it’s true and trusting them.
I don’t see a criticism of the managed society developing on the right or on the left. Instead, people pick vaguely defined managerial forces they wish to see prevail, but the structure and core operating beliefs of these experts is seldom acknowledged or challenged. Many people on the left just want more humane and caring management – which is quite a different demand from that of the people themselves being allowed to make the most important decisions that effect their lives. There are those on the paleocon right who evidence a kind of cranky antipathy towards the managerial elites, but these folks still don’t seem truly ready to abandon the technological society these same trained experts have provided for them. The neocon right has always cultivated its own managers and think tanks and has always been quite ready to enjoy what a “big government” made of empowered managers can provided. For both the left and the right, taking power back from those they have ceded it to will take effort and energy. Who is ready to start that process and what sacrifices will they make to get there? The alternative is just to insist on better management – and not to attack and question the power and role of the managers at all.
C.D.V.: Would you say that right and left are largely irrelevant positions?
Keith418: Well, even if I did, what would be gained? Why do people still cling to these terms and think and act as if they were, indeed, still profoundly meaningful? Since the ’60s – I’m thinking of Karl Hess and even before him – many have tried to point out differing, and more determining and accurate kinds of dichotomies. Centralized vs. decentralized approaches, authoritarian vs. individualistic choices, top-down vs. bottom up styles. Why, after all this time, do people keep using “left and right”? What is concealed, what unrevealed truth is carried in these terms that continues to prevent their exhaustion?
I once, quite by accident, incited a distant supervisor to lecture me – harshly – about the “correct” use of these terms. He was more adamant about what constituted the “real left” that he ever was about any work related issue we were dealing with. I think this speaks to how the terms still have meaning – even if we wish they didn’t and would seek to replace them.
C.D.V.: What do you think remains unresolved at the core of the idea of left and right then as the fact that categories do not seem to leave us would indicate? In my mind, when categories won’t go away despite the existence of more precise semantic categories, there is something unresolved at the core of the idea. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but I suspect you approach this similarly, although it may be for different reasons.
Keith418: Well, what are the origin of the terms? They go back to the days of the French Revolution. What remains unresolved from that point? What questions were asked then that still haven’t been answered – and which our political definition still, somehow, entail? I am reminded of the apocryphal story of Zhou Enlai being asked about the effects of the French Revolution. It was, he was said to have answered, “too soon to tell.” Even if this wasn’t what he was referring to, the essence of this response is still both haunting and illustrative.
To me, these terms represent differing sides on the nature of the dream of shared human life, the great motivating metaphysical dream that floats above us and lives through us as we seek to create a world for ourselves.
“A waning of the dream results in confusion of counsel, such as we behold on all sides in our time. Whether we describe this as decay of religion or loss of interest in metaphysics, the result is the same; for both are centers with power to integrate, and, if they give way, there begins a dispersion which never ends until the culture lies in fragments. There can be no doubt that the enormous exertions made by the Middle Ages to preserve a common world view exertions which took forms incomprehensible to modern man because he does not understand what is always at stake under such circumstances – signified a greater awareness of realities than our leaders exhibit today. The Schoolmen understood that the question, universalia ante rem or universalia post rem, or the question of how many angels can stand on the point of a needle, so often cited as examples of Scholastic futility, had incalculable ramifications, so that, unless there was agreement upon these questions, unity in practical matters was impossible.” – Richard Weaver
Occultism – if it’s about anything – is about exploring the nature of these metaphysical dreams. It means revealing them – to the extent that they can be wrestled from concealment through struggle – and discerning the ways they shape us and the events around us. Magick is – at times- about summoning into being the myths and mythic, heroic figures that inhabit, fulfill, and direct the dreams and represent the ideals. Nothing, so far, has been so climatic as to provide alternatives to the terms “left” and ‘right.” Isn’t this more remarkable than anything else?
C.D.V.: Do you think that the question of metaphysics is “mystified” and assumed? You and I have talked about class as one of things people are hesitant to truly discuss, but I would say metaphysics is more profoundly avoided as if its nonsense. Materialist metaphysics does have implicit assumptions and there are different versions of it. When a philosophical or religious tradition won’t look at metaphysics, I often feel like they are trying to hide an axiom.
Keith418: People can try to avoid looking at the origins of their values, but it’s seldom an effective way to go through life for anyone who wishes to be really deeply engaged – or who even just want to know what they are doing without being taken advantage of.. The folks I know who refuse the metaphysical investigations, but who see themselves as “politically involved” anyway, are just partisan hacks. Partisan hackery is widespread, but it’s increasingly pointless and meaningless. It’s become something like sports fandom. People cheer on one side or the other, but it’s a ridiculous, mindless, empty exercise.
The brighter of my friends on the left follow Hegel is seeing that the governing metaphysics of left politics is nothing more than a secularized Judeo-Christianity. Hambermas says the same thing explicitly.They acknowledge Carl Schmitt’s dictum that all salient political ideals are secularized theological principles. If people deny this… Well, what can be done with them or said about them?
Why would anyone want to hide an axiom? Is it because we can no longer share the irrational faith that these axioms depend on, when we still desperately need the axioms anyway? Is it because beliefs about the nature of human beings as “rational animals” have been exploded, but that we are still operating as if they haven’t been? Can science and reason still bail us out of the mess that that science and reason have, in many ways, created? If this really worried you, would you, want to discuss and examine the axioms?
“Modern rationalism rejected biblical theology and replaced it by such things as deism, pantheism, atheism. But in this process, biblical morality was in a way preserved. Goodness was still believed to consist in something like justice, benevolence, love, or charity; and modern rationalism has a tendency to believe that this biblical morality is better preserved if it is divorced from biblical theology. Now this was, of course, more visible in the nineteenth century than it is today; it is no longer so visible today because one crucial event happened around 1870-1880: the appearance of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s criticism can be reduced to one proposition: modern man has been trying to preserve biblical morality while abandoning biblical faith. That is impossible. If the biblical faith goes, biblical morality must go too, and a radically different morality must be accepted.” — Leo Strauss
Strauss is correct here, and it has grave implications for the left. You can understand why this is true even without being a Straussian.
C.D.V.: This brings me to a question: Do you think the fear of “capitalism with Asian values” that Zizek has been speaking about recently or the old Trotskyist fear of Mao made this apparent? Or is there something else going on there. I have noticed that both Zizek and Badiou have explicitly defended the Christian tradition in the past few years making many of my leftists friends nervous, yet they see the first universalist vision in Saint Paul. (I don’t, actually. I see it in Mahayana Buddhism, but that’s a different story). Yet there seems to be a profound uncomfortableness with “Asian” leftists like Pol Pot, Mao, Ho Chi Min, or even the modern Naxalites. Do you see this as related? Furthermore, do you see any trends in the occult community that parallel this?
Keith418: I’ve always thought that the Trotsky people were susceptible to varying kinds of ethnic chauvinism. This isn’t uniformly the case, but any resistance to looking at non-western ideas and values is going to be problematic. After having been the oppressors in a colonial situation, it’s ironic to see Westerner’s worried about themselves being colonized – or too influenced from ideas originating in the Third World.
The European Enlightenment still under-girds the nature of the left and its definitions and assumptions. How can clinging to these models, insisting on their applicability and righteousness not, in some way, turn into something that looks like chauvinism? Is this a bad thing? Or is it a natural expression of a given people and their history and experience? Is it ironic given that these same ideologies purport to share an internationalist perspective?
People’s inner conflicts and cognitive dissonance becomes most acute when they try to reconcile, or simply live with, contradictory metaphysical principles. The Marxists of the ’60s were all about heightening the contradictions. well, is advancing and strengthening he contemporary welfare state revolutionary, or is it reformist? Are current leftists eager to spot contradictions – or are they eager to avoid recognizing them? I think the intellectual rigor of the left declined with the advent of identity politics. I would be heartened again to see people looking at the contradictions that multiply around us, but I fear few have the stomach for it at this point.
C.D.V.: We have talked about Buddhism as a kind of soft-cultural capital before, but there is a movement of the Baby boomer left that ran to those ideas when Mao and Che didn’t work out for them. However, this has given Buddhism of the Western convert in America a particular flavor that ignores a lot of more conservative teachings on say sexuality. I see in both a want to psychologize everything. What do you think is at root here?
Keith418: I think psychologizing anything speaks to certain, needs, obviously, but there is a lot of room to judge varying psychological interpretations of, say, politics. For example Paglia posits:
“Modern liberalism suffers unresolved contradictions. It exalts individualism and freedom and, on its radical wing, condemns social orders as oppressive. On the other hand, it expects government to provide materially for all, a feat manageable only by an expansion of authority and a swollen bureaucracy. In other words, liberalism defines government as tyrant father but demands it behave as nurturant mother.”
This is certainly a psychological analysis, but it’s not one my friends on the left often appreciate. We can find ways to probe their psychological needs that will make the Buddhists you are talking about profoundly unhappy, can’t we?
C.D.V.: To focus back on Buddhism: Egalitarianism seems radically at odds with the very notion that there are Enlightened beings. In that, it seems interesting that the forms of Buddhism popular in the Europe and in Asia are largely forms where this is either extremely emphasized to the point of seeming unattainable as in some Tibetan Buddhist guru-worship or is frankly denied as still being possible such as Pure Land Buddhism. This move is even more hollowed out in convert Buddhism which seems to reactively put an more egalitarian spin on the Pali cannon.
Do you see this as a linked contradiction?
Keith418: I think they’d make the argument that everyone has the “potential” to be Enlightened. This is an “equality of opportunity” argument. We are all equal in “potential” and if we all don’t take advantage of that potential in the same way, or at the same time, who cares? But the difficulties arise when we ask why that potential – so often proclaimed and insisted on – isn’t more in evidence. Modernity is really about lowering the bar. If everyone is already a Buddha or an adept, then why seek after Enlightenment? Why bother with any of it at all? What is more noxious to egalitarians: the idea that there really are Enlightened beings (whose very existence gives lie to their pretenses), or the easily observable fact that everyone isn’t as wonderful as they claim?
We run smack into modernity – and earn our contemporaries disdain (or worse) – when we seek to reverse course and raise the bar. Start demanding excellence and insist on higher standards and watch what happens. The neopagan and magical bitterly resent anyone who resists the call to lower the bar. This is why beginner books and “dumbing it all down” are seen as so necessary.
On the other hand, only the strong can protect the weak and if everyone’s opinion is equally valuable, then we may well need authorities more than ever – to help us correctly choose between all the “equal opinions.” Goethe once declared, “I too believe that humanity will win in the long run; I am only afraid that at the same time the world will have turned into one huge hospital where everyone is everybody else’s humane nurse.” Does the left really want this hospital? If so, it will need elites to run it and manage it. This,to me, is the Hegelian Endstaat. Thanks, but not thanks.
C.D.V.: Well, I am not entirely a Nietzschean, I think his genealogical approach could be useful here: Why do you this lowering of the bar happens? Is it universal to universalist ideas? For example, earlier I said that I think Mahayana Buddhism was the first attempt at a universality in religion in a real sense, but it also eventually generated ideas like “Buddha nature” and the non-contradiction of samsara/nirivana. Do you think modernity and the radical Enlightenment was undone by this same sort of impulse? How do you see this play out in the OTO for example?
Keith418: You can’t harmonize anti-Enlightenment and Enlightenment ideologies without one side losing – and I said, this seems to be a zero-sum game.
“The classics thought that, owing to the weakness or dependence of human nature, universal happiness is impossible, and therefore they did not dream of a fulfillment of History and hence not of a meaning of History. They saw with their mind’s eye a society within which that happiness of which human nature is capable would be possible in the highest degree: that society is the best regime. However, because they saw how limited man’s power is, they held that the actualization of the best regime depends on chance. Modern man, dissatisfied with utopias and scorning them, has tried to find a guarantee for the actualization of the best social order. In order to succeed, or rather in order to be able to believe that he could succeed, he had to lower the goal of man. One form in which this was done was to replace moral virtue by universal recognition. The classical solution is utopian in the sense that its actualization is improbable. The modern solution is utopian in the sense that its actualization is impossible. The classical solution supplies a stable standard by which to judge of any actual order. The modern solution eventually destroys the very idea of standard that is independent of actual situations.”
– Leo Strauss
Thelemic organizations are caught between the contemporary impulse to lower the bar, and Crowley’s elitism and his insistence on severe self-discipline and actual attainment. Guenon would note that these desires for equality propel the fall from metaphysics into mere religion. Religion’s emphasis is on morality and emotions – not thought or even real action. Any idiot can be religious and plenty of idiots are. The morality in the Thelemic community becomes a herd morality – it validates the group and its needs rather than the individual. Some in the Thelemic community keep insisting (contra Crowley himself in “Magick Without Tears”) that Thelema is a religion and I suspect they are responding to the modern need to lower the bar in the way Strauss means.
Thelema itself contradicts the Hegelian desire for universal recognition. If this is true, it is impossible to simultaneously work for a Thelemic future and struggle for a left-wing Hegelian one. This conflict is critical, but most are missing it.
C.D.V.: Looking at Hegel for a moment: what do you think has happened to the right Hegelians?
Keith418: Are the neocons right hegelians? What about Heideggers lecture on Hegel in which he declared that the Hegelian project was realized in 1933?
C.D.V.: I thought most people who like Spengler would consider the neocons “left hegelians.” Anyway, let me rephrase the question. I was reading an article on Hegel’s relationship to Hermeticism, and it seems to me that Perennialists are partially Hegelian in their attempts to reconcile the world religions. Do you see this as sort of right Hegelianism or am I strenching here?
Keith418: “The universal substance, as vital, exists only so far as it organically particularizes itself.”- Hegel
Is this a “right Hegelian” truism or a “left Hegelian” axiom? How would someone like Guenon see it? And how particular do we mean? What’s the test?
C.D.V.: Hard to say, honestly. Perhaps I am applying political categories where they don’t apply. Guenon seems to be operating with a concept of the universal manifesting int the particular, and in that sense, it would be in the universalism inherent in Hegel and almost dialectical, but that is perhaps a weak sense.
Recently,I have been thinking on the religious left and the religious right. It seems like the real functioning belief system is not the religious element, but the political one as if the political bent was the true religion. Do you see this in various stripes in the Occult community? Any variants from the standard middle class liberal or libertarian bias?
Keith418: Has politics replaced religion? This is what happens with secularization. On the other hand, the underpinnings of both right and left remain religiously grounded – the informing metaphysics guiding the politics originates in theological concepts.
I think the occult community bends with the winds emanating from the larger culture. Though this is the opposite model of the one advanced by conspiracy theorists, who see occult forces and actors operating behind the scenes, it is nonetheless true – even for the leaders of the Thelemic community. Friends have noted, quite uncannily, that they tend to unconsciously imitate whoever the current American president is.
Many of the OTO people I know accept liberal-left ideas as simply as a priori “common sense” – or see this set of values as simply “what everyone knows to be true.” They are utterly nonplussed when you try to get them to see these sets of beliefs as an informing ideology. They are very reluctant to question their own liberal political values – all the while attacking, you know, “fundamentalists.”Very, very few of the libertarian Thelemites I know stay true to libertarian beliefs under pressure. After 9-11, they all became neocons and forgot their libertarian ideals. This is why I would say that a libertarian figure like Ron Paul has almost zero support among Thelemites. Obama remains far, far more popular.
C.D.V.: You have commented that you think post-Enlightenment humanism has a limited conception of man? Would you like to go into that? Furthermore, do you see it being tied into the tacit metaphysics underlying all of this?
Keith418: The Enlightenment saw man as the “rational animal.” If this isn’t true, then what is our new definition? Most political thinking retains this central definition and basic understanding. The post-Enlightenment period hasn’t grappled, enough, with getting past this. To do so, people fear, would mean abandoning the pillars and central values that inform our shared life – equality, democracy, etc. Metaphysics, at its best, reveals news way to go. The occult community, at its worst, stands at the door and balks.
C.D.V.: I have been thinking about this in Zizek’s recent discussions of human rights being both formal and illusory. Do you see the rhetoric of human rights as sort of a lingering theological view in a secular quise?
Keith418: Yes, and this is what Alain de Benoist says over and over again. His recently translated book on the subject goes into this subject in depth. On the one hand, “human rights” seems to us to be this unquestionable bedrock. When examined, on the other hand, it’s all thinly disguised theology. Benoist points out that it’s become the new way to dominate the Third World. First we had to subdue them to bring them Christianity. Then it was “progress” – and then more explicitly technological progress; the benefits of Western rationality. Now it’s all about “human rights.” The end result is always the same, isn’t it?
No one can question appeals to human rights without putting themselves outside of humanity itself – to be skeptical about these justifications is to be a monster and inhuman. No one can argue with a monster. Monsters just need to be destroyed. The theological privileging of those making appeals to “human rights” is palpable.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
“Optimism is only a concealed pessimism, a pessimism that avoids itself. In this age of the convulsion of the entire world pessimism and optimism remain, in the same way, powerless for what is necessary.” – Heidegger
“We want to repose, to be at peace with our fellows whom we love, who misunderstand us and for whose love we are hungry. We want to make terms, we want to surrender. But I have always found that, though I could acquiesce in some such line of conduct, though I could make all preparations for accommodation, yet when it came to the point, I was utterly unable to do the base, irrevocable act.” – Crowley
On Aleister Crowley, Stalin, and Standards
Originally posted here.
C.Derick Varn: Just for my reader’s clarity sake. You and I come from similar but almost inverse points of view: I try to understand culture and religion and thus am fascinated with occultists but am I leftist. You are trying to figure out how societies work including in the occult community and thus study leftists. You often see many, many parallels that are instructive. For example, you have observed while officially most Marxists are supposed to be materialists–albeit of a very specific type–they often act like believers in the spirit or the transcendent. While Occultists are suppose to be idealists in the manifestation of their will, but often act like vulgar materialists. Why do you think this is the case?
Keith418: Because both groups are uncomfortable with the implications of what each are supposed to believe. The occultists are reluctant to give up on the influence of the material universe, and the Marxists are just as unwilling to depend on it and it only. Modernity, now, creates these muddles and the path out of them requires more self discipline than people are able to attain to these days. Consumerism erodes self-discipline and both groups swim in the same waters that everyone else does. People want to be “different” but no one wants to be “that” different. Changing the status quo really demands a commitment to a kind of radical difference, but since the end of the ’80s this has been harder and harder for people to see and muster the strength for.
Contemporary, so-called followers of Aleister Crowley seldom engage in any personal magick. Instead, what they want is a kind of pleasing, gentle, Unitarianism with faintly occult trappings. Most Marxists are unable or unwilling to penetrate the inner workings of the various players in various social classes the way Lenin told them to, because they do not have the strength to cope with the “symbolic violence” Bourdeiu described so well. In both cases, the ideologies serve as a way to cope with a world they cannot really change, rather than a means for them to change a world they can no longer cope with. Deviations like this are inevitable once people surrender. And, in each case, surrender they have.
I wonder how much of their problems are the result of the loss of a kind of “interiority.” Modern Thelemites and modern Marxists both, at times, seem barely literate. So many people have lost the ability to sit and read anything – to enlarge and expand on their own interior selves. Without this ability, how can they engage deeply with either Aleister Crowley or someone like Lenin? Academics that do not read for pleasure before they enter school are just as useless. A friends notes that it’s not a matter of people not reading because they won’t read – but because they can’t. They can’t sit and focus. If he’s right, then what chance do these people ever have of seeing why they are mistaken or totally off course?
C.D.V.: This has led me to wonder what could fix this, and honestly while even my ultimate goals may be a stateless society, it will require a lot of discipline and a transition that will be ugly. It seems to me that a lot of revolutionary leftists want a revolution without the revolution part. That is they don’t want to look at the nature of the negation with the current. You have pointed this out by quoting, oddly, Spengler, Zizek, and Stalin as parallels?
Keith418: You have to look at the way our current society has been sold the idea that discipline has to be “ugly.” Modern consumerism is predicated on the exaltation of ease and a lack of discipline. This is part of the message of all its propaganda. What is the current origins of our disinclination to view self-discipline negatively, or as a “necessary evil? Why, for example, do we wish we wouldn’t have to struggle for things and why do people resist seeing struggle as something noble? These reactions are not formed by accident, nor do they exist in some kind of universal sense.
Zizek is pointing out the need, even the necessity, to rehabilitate and embrace per-consumerist ideals and values – values we find among both Bolsheviks and those involved in the “conservative revolution” (Spengler, Junger, etc.). Modern revolutionaries do not want to look at whether or not there really is a “decadence” that infected even their target audience, nor do they wish to really attack that decadence and its pernicious effects. Ironically, when they do, they sound too “conservative” for most liberals and leftists to bear.
The Marxists I talk to will acknowledge – sometimes – that the masses need to undergo their own political experiences. These experiences cannot be experienced “for” them, in some sort of vicarious fashion by the vanguard or by the leader. They have to undergo these experiences themselves and, in that process, they will change. Why wouldn’t we welcome that change? It implies that their current state isn’t that great. Well, say that enough and you’re going to damage people’s sense of “self-esteem.” It’s not a flattering thing to be told.
In the occult community, no one wants to admit that they need to change, or that they should change. Initiations, now, are just a further ratification of why they already are. To admit that one needs to change or must change in some significant sense is to acknowledge that real problems and deficiencies exist. Magicians, surprisingly, do not want to admit that they aren’t perfect “just the way they are.” Are Marxists going to tell the working class that isn’t wonderful just the way it is?
C.D.V.: It seems like they are going to have to go through it anyway as modern capitalism can’t deliver on its propaganda these days. What are your thoughts on that?
Keith418: I keep wondering if people will be so distracted by technology that they won’t notice. This current generation – does it realize its parents lived better than it does? Or does it just want to play “Angry Birds” on cell phones and fool around online? New technology often is deceptive in this sense. We are preoccupied with things like Twitter and Facebook, but they employ very few people. There is a – mostly – unacknowledged contrast between the amounts of attention these things get vs. the number of people really involved with these companies.
There is any number of ways that this can play out. The modern state and corporations can offer the people more bribes to keep the “labor aristocracy” at peace. They can, of course, not offer those bribes and face unrest. But the meritocratic nature of contemporary capitalism tends to take away the best organizers and intellectuals for itself – thus rendering the organized left with very little in the way of dependable human resources. Smart people, talented people, highly disciplined and trained people – the kind of people who can lead and make a successful revolution, are almost always now bought off. The left doesn’t want to look at this “brain drain” for moral reasons, but it’s painfully obvious.
How much is the same current social engineering really a way to pacify the masses and take away the cream into non-profits and consulting work? The liberal left supports the agenda of the social engineers,but it may not realize the long term effects of all the therapy, pills, and training.
C.D.V.: How long could those gadgets keep everyone at heel when the entire Western world starts looking like Greece? I don’t know. Does this sort of thinking infect occultist as well? Do you know if there are people trying to do Geotia on an i-pod or something?
Keith418: It’s a good question, but I keep expecting people to realize they are being played with this technology and they can’t seem to put it down. The more time people spend with video games and meaningless social media, the less time they are able to bring to anything more important and demanding – and that includes the occult.
There is a novelty element with new technology that few seem to be able to see through or resist. The new app, the new toy, it sucks people in and – just when they get bored – there’s another new one. The left and the people in occultism swim in the same waters everyone else does far too much of the time. How can they not be distracted this way and what faculties inside them atrophy in the process?
Some make a conscious effort to use these technologies in better ways, but they often devolve into thinking they are CNN reporters, or they exhaust their possibilities fast. I thought of all the people I saw on Facebook and Twitter furiously posting reports they were getting from all the same places everyone else got them. What’s the point of that? People caught up in “current events” all the time? How sad does that get after awhile?
C.D.V.: It does get limiting quickly. The past parts of the “new media” are ways in that mimics the very old media, but its speed actually doesn’t always seem to help. It seems to limit reflection in some ways since things are pushed to be discussed now. It distorts our sense of time. Do you see this affecting Thelemites?
Keith418: I think the Situationists once said that they were indebted to the surrealists for revealing to everyone the poverty of the unconscious. In this sense, I think we are all very much indebted to social media for revealing the incredible poverty of the contemporary occult scene. The Internet showed all of us that most of the people involved aren’t educated enough, or brave enough, to do meaningful and interesting work with occultism and magick. Many of us might have suspected this to be true, prior to the Internet’s dawn, but it was more like a suspicion – born out of necessarily limited experiences. Now, it’s irrefutable. While depressing, to be sure, it’s better to know than not know. We have all learned quite a bit from the experience.
This brings me to another topic. Why don’t people follow Lenin’s advice and actually observe the social classes and see how they currently live. Not just in a revolutionary situation, but in general.
C.D.V.: How do you mean?
Keith418: See, I don’t think it’s weird to expect anyone to be able to do what Lenin said, but no one makes this demand. Communist have retreated away from class psychology. This makes no sense at all
C.D.V.: Many Marxist don’t want to look at the hard end of it, ultimately. They try to redefine old categories without clarifying a departure or they don’t talk about class explicitly. Sometimes, I wonder if this is partly because so many people don’t realize how severe a break with the current could or would be.
Keith418: But what else is communism but a break with the old? That’s all Lenin said it was a fight against the old way. You can see the Trotskyites fighting with me about the labor aristocracy and spontaneity. You know who said that combating spontaneity was one of the “foundations” of Leninism in 1924? Stalin? Come on. You cannot habituate people to spontaneous eruptions and then expect them to submit to planning and leadership. This is totally obvious.
C.D.V.: Well, you see that people who quote Zizek, but don’t take him seriously when he says the next society will be disciplinary.
Keith418: Any work to take power away from the individual is seen as regressive. a strictly materialist, Marxist analysis is seen as degrading.
C.D.V.: Well that’s oddly paradoxical because revolutions seem to be impossible if the current informs all thinking.
Keith418: Show me the way out of this. Even Marxists find Marx’s reduction to be degrading. Are you only the mirror of your role in production?
C.D.V.: Gramsci ironically thought that the October revolution proved this part of Marx wrong , and, it is degrading.
Keith418: It may be degrading feeling, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
C.D.V.: The problem is that if it’s true Marx himself is wrong because it’s circular and dialectics don’t get you out of it. The Immersation thesis has been proven objectively false.
Keith418: Immiseration thesis. Well, this comes back to imperialism.
C.D.V.: Yes, it does come back to imperialism, but here’s an issue with Marx. If the base determines all elements of the superstructure, then change shouldn’t be able to happen from within a class, even the dominant class.
Keith418: The production changes. Everything is in flux. Read Stalin on historical materialism.
C.D.V.: But the production changes itself?
Keith418: The production changes. Everything is in flux. Read Stalin on historical materialism.
C.D.V.: But the production changes itself?
Keith418: The social process changes the production, and the production changes social process.
C.D.V.: But production is the determinant of last instances in Marx and Engels.
Keith418: It’s all a matter of progress from one state to another.
Keith418: What does Hegel tell us about the circular? That it is the absolute. Read Kojeve.
C.D.V.: That I haven’t read.
Keith418: It will blow your mind.
C.D.V.: So one is left then, if it’s Marx or Hegel which is ultimately right. Zizek has been saying this lately that Marx wasn’t Hegelian enough.
Keith418: Be careful because there is this temptation to move away from materialism and its always bourgeois. The spirit cannot be happy making. This is Crowley’s grace. His spirit is not happy making
C.D.V.: Yes, well if “truth” makes one happy easily, and without work, it is generally a lie.
Keith418: This is why I think we need to look again at the issue of what materialism really is. Because the contemporary Marxists aren’t telling me what Stalin is, and calling him crude doesn’t cut it. They don’t hate him because he’s crude; they hate him because he’s lucid.
C.D.V.: No, his writings on historical materialism aren’t crude even with all the party baggage, although I know many who claim he just didn’t write the works. Furthermore, attacking HIM as opposed to his ideas doesn’t cut it either. Just because he made have deviated from them, particularly tactically, doesn’t make the ideas themselves invalid. If there are problems in the philosophy, they must be philosophically addressed.
Keith418: Mao said 70-30. I hold to that a lot but whatever his other faults poor writing wasn’t one of them. I am reading a collection of essays and they are gripping. On a related topic, in the 70s the Maoists I knew then spoke a lot about class consciousness. Who talks about that now? I mean really talks about class, not just the system or capitalism, but what it means to be a class and how it has changed. How can you have a revolutionary Marxism without an understanding of class? This is what is so crazy making to me, but class makes people upset. It reminds them of things they don’t want to admit.
C.D.V.: Well, you have to be honest and say that only Maoists and Burnham and a few Trotskyist turned Fascists in Italy, actually tried to address the shift in the meaning and nature of class. The rest of the popular Marxists such as Negri and even Zizek don’t talk about class anymore in a coherent matter.
Keith418: Avakaian doesn’t either. See, there’s an analogy of Thelemites who don’t practice ceremonial magick and Marxists who avoid a discussion of class. They know that if they talk about class it will turn off their intended audience. It’s like the Trots who won’t tell people they are Trots
C.D.V.: So you have asserted that education limits people dealing with people like Lenin or Aleister Crowley. Would you like to go into this in more detail?
Keith418: We have to ask ourselves, regarding both of these figures, what does it take, now, to read their writings in the original and fully comprehend them? If people are taught rigorous critical thinking and have had a decent range of readings and experiences, they can get a lot out of reading Crowley and Lenin. But are people getting these kinds of educations these days? Are they having the needed experiences? How often do these writers, instead, have to be filtered through interpreters (with their own limitations and agendas)? On the other hand, the people with “educations” now are often really not “educated” (in the classical sense) as much as they are indoctrinated with PC, mainstream social engineering. The people without educations can’t understand the materials, and the people with “educations” have been trained not to take radically different threats to the dominant order seriously. This paradox haunts both the left and occultism.
In the occult community, people aspire to higher education (usually because they want to be middle class) and then are trained – in the academy – to utterly reject occultism. Is there a similar process going on with Marxism – whereby energy is poured into strictly academic discourse and what you get, at best, are very weak versions of the old school “public intellectuals”?
Lenin tells revolutionaries that they have to come to profound and acute understandings of various segments of society – the inner workings of their character – from experience and not from a book. Are young Marxists really doing that? Do they go out into the world and really study different types in contemporary society to understand their inner logic and values? It’s not a matter of learning from books – he explicitly rejects that. I am often disappointed by young people who have led sheltered lives and never seem to know or have experienced a wide range of human types. This lack of basic life experience has got to cripple those on the left and those involved in serious occultism.
C.D.V.:: The kind of education you are describing can be said to be very instrumental instead of formative. I would agree, however, that most Marxists or anarchists have little familiarity with organizing workers or the problems of non-academic labor. So do you think this, well, laziness is directly related to consumer culture?
Keith418: Partly to that, but also we have to look at the kind of over-specialization we see today in academia. Academics used to pride themselves on their range of knowledge and their grasp of fields beyond their own specialty. The professors I knew as a kid thought only hopeless nerds and losers talked only about their own fields. Instead, you were supposed to cultivate a broader number of interests and areas of expertise – the arts, history, etc. Now, academics are so specialized, and the competition is so tough, who among them has the leisure time for anything beyond their own increasingly tiny niche?
Kids grow up today, provided they are middle class or above, in more and more structured, guarded, and protected environments. This cripples their sense of adventure, independence, and individuality. Coming out of these carefully managed “play date” upbringings, how can they expect to be bold and risk danger in their lives and even in their own thinking?
I think the left tends to support this movement towards greater and greater state intervention and protection at its own peril. It needs independent critical thinkers and then supports programs and social attitudes that inhibits the formations of whole classes that might prove revolutionary. I simply do not believe that a PC welfare state is going to produce the kind of bold, independent subjects the left needs. Needless to say, this same welfare state doesn’t produce subjects who can do anything with magick and occultism either.
C.D.V.: While in my estimation a left that wants an expanded Fordist/Keynesian welfare state is no longer left in any meaningful sense as it is not progressing anything but merely trying to go back an immediate past without dealing with that’s pasts failures. But I would agree with you that this is largely a middle class development.
But the lack of imagination in this is staggering: I suppose that is why I find both the left and the occult community so interesting, but in the attempt to deal with modernity and, so far, powerlessness in actually transcending much of it.
Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Keith418: I think the imagination of the “real left” is then challenged to address ideas that transcend middle class conceptions of a welfare state. The people’s demands should inform these new ideas, but if the people really want a well managed welfare state, what do you do then?
There has to emerge a revolutionary class that can embrace those new ideas. In the same sense, there have to be individuals who can break out of the sterility of the contemporary occult and Thelemic communities and take it in new and better directions. Neither of these forces can emerge, however, without a criticism of present conditions, nor can they discover themselves and their own truths without a struggle. The irony here is that my receptive magical individuals prove to be just as elusive, given present ontologies and the creation of subjects (individual and collective), as your revolutionary class:
“These new enemies of mine were not capable of comprehending my criticism: because of their intellectual level they inevitably perceived any discussion based on serious cultural and critical apparatus as something both impenetrable and annoying – for, in an attempt to satisfy their sentimental urges and taste for the common and ‘occult,’ such people had grown accustomed to the popularization and debasement of certain subjects.” – Evola
On the dead of the left and the right, or the spirits of Hegel and Nietzsche.
C.D.V.: Recently, you and I have been discussing some of the crucial things about Nietzsche and Hegel in which you assert that you agree with that Nietzsche ignores the Zeitgeist, but that Nietzsche’s critique of the lingering Christianity in left Hegelian-ism is essentially valid. Could you explain how this “dialectic” between Nietzsche and Hegel gives resolved in a way that crucial points and critiques of both are maintained?
Keith418: I don’t think Nietzsche ignores the zeitgeist exactly – he doesn’t celebrate it as a positive principle the way Hegel does. But he rejects the idea of the “spirit” guiding things through history. I suspect that this is an error, but it comes back to the way one defines the “spirit.” Nietzsche looked at the “last men” blinking and didn’t like what he saw. Personally, I think we are moving in the direction that Hegel predicted – as I’ve said I usually see him more as a scientist than as a philosopher – but I simply do not believe his version of the Endstaat is sustainable. It’s Goethe’s “giant hospital” in which we are all everyone’s sympathetic nurse. People want this – and they consciously or unconsciously move towards it. But not only is it disgusting, from my point of view, it simply isn’t sustainable. We can’t always have what we want – even if what we desire is moral to us and just.
The other issue comes with fighting for Hegelian universal “recognition.” If everyone is recognized, then no one is. There is a kind of “recognition inflation” present that we see signs of today. None of the people I know on the left really want to grapple with this. Instead, they keep on fighting to get this group or that group properly “recognized.”
Let’s not kid ourselves either. Nietzsche knew that the state was the coldest of all cold monsters. The left needs the state to both manage its giant hospital and to fight against everything that will not submit to its Hegelian, universalist agenda. “Human rights” – as Pierre Krebs notes – is the albi with which it wages its total war. I think this spirit has to crash and burn before something new can start.
C.D.V.: You have pointed out, several times, that the one thing that can be said about Stalin for any flirtation he may have had with a détente with Fascism prior to Hitler’s invasion move east, that Stalinism won World War 2. Ironically, this seems to vindicate not a Marxist, but a Nietzsche view point on the kinds of monsters one needs to fight other monsters, no?
Keith418: Many people purport that Stalin was buying time to arm effectively. People basically trash Stalin constantly, but they never give him the credit he deserves – for, you know, wining WWII. I have to confess I find his writings to be unusually and refreshingly lucid and far more direct than what I see from most Marxists these days.
I brought up the cold monster line because I think the left is conflicted about whom, and how, it will manage the giant hospital it craves. On the one hand, it wants things that need to have managers. On the other hand, is suspicious of the power these managers will have to have. How does it get the things that only a managerial class can provide, without the managers it feels are oppressive and who tend towards preserving their own privileges at the expense of others? Nietzsche cuts to the chase on that, doesn’t he?
Skepoet: What about Stalin’s writing appeals to you? I can think of an anarchist friend who was rapidly anti-Marxist, but he said to me more than the once, “Stalin is a monster, but he scared capitalists. Trots don’t.” I still find this interesting.
Keith418: He’s lucid and direct. He knows what he thinks and he spells it out. He’s not writing for academics, but for the masses – and in a way that is hardly condescending. Stalin wasn’t conflicted. He had a mission; he knew what he needed to do and he went about doing it. It’s sort of like the Onion parody on Steve Jobs – “the fact that he was able to sit down, think clearly, and execute his ideas.” I think many Marxists today are all about scoring points with other academics or impressing people with jargon and their erudition – all of which is no doubt fun for them, but obscures the fact that they really don’t have much of a plan or a way forward.
C.D.V.: Do you see this as somehow particular to Marxism? Or is it part of a general zeitgeist?
Keith418: It’s the part of the problem of the managerial state and the collapse of the West. Goethe’s “giant hospital” is the only thing people are ready to work for, and it’s already falling apart. It’s not feasible. It also creates too many contradictions. We want the benefits of a managerial state, but without, you know, the managers. We want what we get from a centralized, universal state, but no one wants to pay the costs that such a thing will demand. We want what you can only get from coercion and exploitation, but without the coercion and the exploitation.
A fish rots from the head down. The secularized, Judeo-Christian project is exhausting itself, but all people can do, for the most part, is cling tighter to it. They know that its dreams of equality are foolish, but they can’t admit it. Their internal “operating systems” – sets of values, Enlightenment methodologies – on both the right and the left, are wedded to values and dreams that are unrealizable. Hegel was right about what this thing was, where it came from, and what it wanted. Nietzsche was right in predicting what would happen to it.
C.D.V.:What would a consistent left look like in your mind? Or do you think such a thing is irrelevant?
Keith418: Maybe start with not letting the media distract everyone every five minutes. I used to assume that hard left and sectarian leftists would be more immune to this endless sideshow. But they very clearly aren’t.No one can focus on being consistent if they keep getting pulled around this way. In the ’60s, the New Left played the media and developed its own alternative media – but, alas, the hunted has become the hunter.
The key to this is to question the media’s authority. Be skeptical of it. As Fran Lebowitz said, no one ever expected that the mass media would become the only authority left. But that’s what it has become and the left is as enslaved to it as everyone else is.
To really start to be consistent, the left needs to make a break with the forces of modernity that impel it to keep lowering the bar. No one has to be smart to be a leftist now. No one has to be strong or brave. In an eagerness to be inclusive, the left has squandered its reserves. Recovering them back is going to start looking like a conservative project.
Being inconsistent comes about when you are afraid to face scary things – and start being hypocritical and self-canceling as a consequence. Strong people can be consistent and if the left isn’t consistent now, it’s an indication of its lack of daring and courage.
C.D.V.: I have two questions in response to this. The first is that I would like to talk about the left looking like a conservative project? What would it resemble: ex-Trotskyist Neo-conservatives, the French new right, Sp!ked ex-Trotskyist Neo-liberalism? Second, how much do you think resentment actually plays in both mainstream left and mainstream right politics?
Keith418: First, I think that demanding that people raise the bar would strike everyone as reactionary. Neither the neo-cons nor the Trots are really interested in making everyone read more and work harder. Few see this as even possible now because the pull of modernity is to lower the bar – to make the “ought” more like the “is,” rather than the other way around. Yet without demanding more – without insisting on more work, more effort, and more discipline – how will any of the left’s projects get off the ground?
Second, it’s often all about snobbery, social aspiration, and resentment. Remember that Pat Buchanan famously, and affectionately, reoffered to his supporters as “the haters.” That said, no one is motivated unless they are moved in some manner. What does it take to authentically move people? If everyone on the left is a disinterested, compassionate, courageous saint… isn’t that a ridiculous expectation? What kind of subject is that going to be and what will be their ontology? Those kinds of people are often at the forefront of the culture wars, oblivious as to their true class privileges. Do you know these people? I sure do.
C.D.V.: Well, in a way, open resentment is preferable to closeted resentment, as Nietzsche would have stated about “everyone on the left is a disinterested, compassionate, courageous saint[s].” Do you see the left’s liberalism as one of its problems or a symptom of one of its problems in this regard?
Keith418: I think they aspire to be these kinds of saints. They aren’t, obviously, always this way. Is this a good model for them to aspire to be? What are the virtues of the left? We need to look at who they want to be or become. Liberalism, as Gottfried has noted, has changed radically over the last 100 years or more. Is it about less government? it was once. It’s not now. Is it about the individual instead of the group? It was once; it’s not so much now.
Ultimately, we have to examine its collective dreams of itself. Are its ideals still viable, or can it only discover their viability through practice and through history? Lenin said that the masses had to have, to undergo their own political experiences. I think this is quite perceptive, but I wonder if people believe this is true now, or whether or not they hope that these experiences can be had vicariously for the masses by the vanguard or by the leader.
C.D.V.: I know you are highly influenced by both paleo-conservatives and the French new right, although within specific limits, how do see you see Nietzsche and Hegel playing into this?
Keith418: American paleocons, with some few exceptions, will not – and will never – accept Nietzsche. They are seeking to restore the bourgeois experience of the past and they know that the religious sentiments Nietzsche struggled against are a huge part of that experience. The European new Right, on the other hand, are distinguished from paleocons in the US by their embrace of Nietzsche and other thinkers influenced by him.
Hegel’s insistence on rationalism tends to alienate both groups. If they have anything in common, it is a distrust of rationalism and its adherents. The American paleocons cling to an irrational religious faith and the ENR people are irrationalists of the Nieztchean persuasion
I see myself as a “descriptive” Hegelian rather than a “prescriptive” one. I think he is describing what’s happening. That doesn’t mean I agree with it or approve of it – or even think it will work out well.
C.D.V.: What do you as the problems of the new ENR and how does its compare with the problems of the left?
Keith418: They are manifold. The ENR aren’t interested in being a political force. They are invested, instead, in being intellectuals in the European tradition and doing cultural and think tank type work. There are plenty of Americans on the left, and you yourself may know some, who are pursuing the same agenda. At the same time, the ENR – like elements within the American paleocons, are working against centralization. This is an impossible task, I suspect, given the way the zeitgeist is going. People instinctively react against it. They often don’t know why they reject it, but no one sees anything but increasing centralization as a solution. This may be irrational, but it is a fact nonetheless and those who want other options are doomed to be frustrated as their pleas and arguments are ignored.
C.D.V.: Which leads me wonder to one what a political resistance to liberal modernity looks like exactly?
Keith418: What would look like? There has to be a profound coming to terms with the nature of the Enlightenment. We’re not at that point yet.
C.D.V.: What do you think the fundamental problems of the Enlightenment actually are?
Keith418: Me? Democracy, equality, utilitarianism, universalism, “progress”, man as the “rational animal”, the enshrinement of reason in general. The list goes on. I am in fundamental agreement with Nietzsche about the pernicious nature, and the ultimate futility, of all of these things.
C.D.V.: What is your interest in a possible revitalization of a left?
Keith418: I think the left can bring needed problems and solutions to the table. I have an investment in the kind of critical thinking the left used to be able to do. And remember that Heidegger himself concluded that the Marxist interpretation of history was the most advanced. That hasn’t changed.
C.D.V.: So the left has a function as a necessary adversary to which an a-political man (to use this in Schmitt’s terms) has no recourse?
Keith418: Well it all depends on what people are able to come up with. Some of my friends have spoken of the possibility of an “inegalitarian left” – or a left no longer obsessed with equality issues. Is this possible and is it desirable? What if the left abandons the “rational actor” model – a model that they themselves tend to ridicule when it comes to libertarians. Those who say we need to go beyond left and right are seldom leftists, but can a new left emerge that can criticize the icons of the Enlightenment in a penetrating, consistent sense? I am eager to see this force emerge.
I think there are people on the left that not only see the managerial classes as a threat, but also recognize that this class exists, in no small part, because of a widespread faith in rationality’s limitless promises – and that this belief is itself a trap.
C.D.V.: I can tell that many on the Marxist left see that critique as “regressive.” But the term regressive is interesting no? So is progressive? The old and obvious statement that it betrays a teleological standpoint is obvious, but here’s question for me, are those terms becoming empty signifiers to the most on the left because they know longer know what teleology they want? Take for example the left that loves Lacan, like say Zizek, they admit that there is no Endstaat and that every ideology has a symbolic, if not mythic, quality and that everyone serves a master-signifier. This could almost come out of Alain De Benoist or Guillaume Faye, or perhaps tellingly, Carl Schmitt. Lacan would call this the symbolic order, Marxists the dominant ideology, and ENR would call it a necessary political theology.
Keith418: Remember that unlike the American right, the ENR people are very critical of capitalism. They seem more resolute on this front than many I see on the left in the USA – who seem to have abandoned class criticism for a kind of gradualist approach to extending the welfare state.
C.D.V.: Isn’t the nature of the critique of capitalism different?
Keith418: It is, and it isn’t. But it’s important to look at it because it’s different. They insist that capitalism dehumanizes people. Doesn’t the left say that too?
C.D.V.:: Yes, but how it dehumanizes people would be different, no? In some leftist it would be alienation from relatively equal “natural” status. In the New Right it would be because it dissolves the organic community and its “natural” hierarchies or its possibility for regeneraion through various non-economic social structures. Is this too simple?
Keith418: I don’t object to this summation, other than to ask whether how they are able to sustain their bitterness directed at the “market society” and globalization, when so many of today’s left just seem to accept its dehumanizing, regimenting qualities – and only want to reform or tweak the system.
C.D.V.: And you would say that because the left doesn’t consistently abandon rational actors model, implied in both left-liberal democracy and in Marxist materialist dialectics?
Keith418: I think the left has lost its deep antipathies. They haven’t.
C.D.V.: They being the French new Right? Interesting. So I suppose I should ask you to talk about how Crowley would view the Hegel issue? This is always important given the cultural double-think here.
Keith418: Crowley cites Hegel and it’s clear he was familiar with him. On the one hand, Crowley rejects the Enlightenment in many of the same ways Nietzsche does. On the other hand, it’s hard for me not to see Hegel in Crowley’s early political plans. In his later years, however, Crowley had reasserted a more Nietzschean perspective. Crowley’s antipathy towards democracy and the masses appears to me to contradict Hegel. He was no Marxist, that’s for sure. I see Crowley’s politics being very much akin to those of other figures in the inner war “Conservative Revolution” mold – Evola, Spengler, Schmitt, etc. These connections remain, for the most part, unexplored because of American ignorance of, and disinterest in, these thinkers. They all had a huge impact on Benoist and his associates however. Crowley seems to reject most of the identitarian ethos of the New Right. In this sense, he is more like Junger and the later Evola.
C.D.V.: Anything to say in closing?
Keith418: I suspect that now – perhaps more than ever – both those on the left and on the right need to look at the very hardest questions – the thoughts about their positions they dare not think, the issues they are each repressing the most. Until these monsters are brought to the surface, it’s all a distraction.
On the moral grounding of political notions
Originally published here.
Keith418 is one of the most controversial figures in modern Thelema. His interviews on the defunct Thelema: Coast to Coast were often rigorous and demanding, yet highly contentious. Keith418 has also documented thinkers on both the radical right and the far left often comparing those thinkers to the problematic thought in the Occult community. He has recently spoken at C-realm podcast as well.
C. Derick Varn: Recently, you and I were discussing about how even in groups that are interested in “inequality” or even “the working class” or “labor” there is an avoidance of class dynamics. I think we both think this comes from training class as if it were just another “identity” like gender or race. Would you like to elaborate on that?
Keith418: A friend noted that, when class is discussed at all these days, it’s talked about as another kind of “identity.” As in, “respect people from the working class.” It’s not about how those people are formed or used or how those subjects are created and why they are here. Instead, it’s a demand that they be honored and respected and appreciated – not that “class” as an issue be erased or that the forces that create different classes be eliminated. People are supposed to be proud to be “working class” – just like they are proud to be “gay” or proud to be “black.” The underlying mechanism of class and class domination is never discussed. This naturalizes class. It looks like a trenchant criticism of the status quo, but it’s not. How is this not a problem and why aren’t people addressing it? If we all learn to respect the “working class” does that mean we use them with cleaner consciences? Is this what the left wants?
C.D.V..: Clearly this seems to be a move towards things that are more obvious, but also more obviously arbitrary. They can be subsumed in liberal modernity pretty easily, while class if viewed as a something that is unacceptable is not something that accommodation can handle. In that sense, actually winning would require something that is destabilizing. Although oddly, this brings me to our recent debate on Jonathan Haidt, do you think that focus on class as identity instead of class as foundation is part of a liberal moral virtue of inclusiveness?
K.: I think class as identity is just easier for them to cope with than class as a product of human relations. This is the same, when you think about it, with gender and race. There is a virtuous sense of equality and value that seems to assume that “respecting” people alleviates the need to stop exploiting them. Liberals and the left like to look at problems, but examining the causes for those problems is harder for these folks to do. That “racism is wrong” they will readily acknowledge and helpfully explain to us. But what causes it? If everyone is guilty and implicated, who will guide to our glorious new society and who – untainted – will govern it?
Who will be the left’s managers? If we assume a revolution, who will manage the resources after it is over? How will these people be trained and developed – and what would prevent them from simply be assumed into the ruling structure the left is seeking to overthrow?
The anti-revisionist left used to urge people to “go into the factories” right? Why didn’t that work out? Is anyone asking? Did factory work become too numbing for everyone? Or did the other workers simply not respond to their ideologies? I find the fact that so few seem to be curious about the history of these groups and their struggles and decline to be itself curious. You’d think people would be researching this stuff so as to learn from these groups and their mistakes. Who does and why don’t they?
We’ve talked about the people who are “Progressive Except for Palestine.” What about the folks who are “Progressive Except for Income Inequality”? This not insubstantial group views the current society as a meritocracy and wants to make sure everyone gets a fair shake within it. They care about every liberal issue – like gay marriage, environmentalism, and women’s rights – that doesn’t call into question the ownership of the means of production and how their own particular privilege is maintained within it.
What I don’t grasp is why the “real left” never goes after these people. Instead, everyone wants to target what remains of the white working class and its issues – never the privilege of the NPR-listening, Prius-driving, white liberal elites. What I see on Facebook and elsewhere are people who keep shooting down the class slope. They may see themselves as “leftists” but their cultural targets are always poorer and less educated than they are. As long as the working class and the poor do not obey the left’s ideological dictates about, say, science and gender issues, they will remain the enemy.
C.D.V.: This is an interesting contradiction then isn’t it? The right is supposedly exclusive, but has a populist base largely on a willingness to be broad on cultural issues, but leftist and liberals both tend to be supposedly populist but whose ideological and aesthetic judgments are elitist. Do you think this contradiction is something Haidt’s research help you understand?
K.: No, I’ve looked at it for a long time – as I think anyone who has worked seriously in left-liberal circles has. Ken Minogue pointed out, some time ago, the way the left has a very elitist nature. They are the ones who are enlightened – the elect seeking to liberate the ignorant. This kind if condescension appears to me to be another way Judeo-Christian translates into the left’s approach. “The blessed” – who are distinguished by being always ready to profess the right and virtuous opinions are in conflict with the “poor and benighted” who don’t get. It’s worse lately. now the left seeks to speak ‘truth to the stupid” rather than speaking truth to “power.” they ARE the power and their values and the the ones that dominate. In any event, it’s always about attacking the people poorer and less privileged than they are. The people who weren’t privileged enough to go to good schools and who don’t understand why you have to listen to NPR, drive a Prius and take canvas bags to the grocery store. Those people, of course, are the problem – not the people running the non-profits and elite foundations.
C.D.V.: What if the left or liberals just openly embraced elite culture and values? It seems like conservative values in the US are just as elitists in their function economically, but it just a different set of elites. What bothers me is the patent hypocritical nature of both claims, again, with a slight deviant perhaps being paleo-conservatives who do see themselves as a remnant elite, but as you have said, “they were bad suits.”
K.: What does it matter to us if none of these groups has any real authority or even an understanding of what that is – where it originates, what it constitutes? I’m not seeing any evidence that any of them has the slightest clue. Science cannot tell us what our values should be, and the values that used to motivate people before the age of science aren’t working well no matter how they get restated or disguised and stuck into new, and usually threadbare and cheap, costumes. A real elite needs real authority, They don’t have it. None of them do. It’s all increasingly revealed as feeble and inauthentic posturing. Real authority is like real art – it has to engage with and proceed from and return to the absolute. What Facebook and the Internet show us is that no one can be consistent any longer – and without that sense of consistency there is no authenticity and no real authority.
C.D.V.: If I understand you correctly, at the moment, no one seems to be operating from a point of consistency ideologically, or in connection with power. So embracing elitism honestly would be impossible in that situation. Do you see this increasing?
K.: I think we have to look carefully at the ‘truth to power” line. Lately, the leftists I know want to speak “truth to stupid.” We see this with their anger at the small government types, the people who deny climate change, or the religious. This is a very different dynamic and one that has come to usurp the former idea. Are we oppressed by power or by ignorance? The frustrations and the contempt the managers have for the managed is not “revolutionary” – is it?
I also notice that many leftists seem reluctant to lampoon, satirize, and generally disparage the accouterments and excesses of the privileged. Look at the paintings of George Grosz and the cartoons in The Masses. Who is going after the privileged elites today with the same kind of venom and sharpened ire? Look at the wealthy families with their spoiled children and their paraded pretensions – this isn’t ripe for criticism? Yet who on the left does this? We don’t see it – any more than we see leftist satires of elite and, obviously hypocritical, “liberal” Zionists. The desire to target the lifestyles and presumptions of the privileged elites just isn’t there.Why not? Is it because these people are allies against the “conservative” masses? Do people on the left aspire themselves to lofts in Brooklyn with nannies who know to recycle?
Maybe the old WASP elites were different. Now that new elites, from other ethnic groups have emerged, no one feels the same motivation to take them out and to subject them to righteous ridicule.
S.: This seems tangentially related to another issue you and I have talked about: The refusal to look seriously at failures of left-wing thought in the past is deeply there. For example, you pointed me to a Kasama post reviewing at book on the Sojourner Truth Organization which flippantly skipped over both the fact that STO had got little support from the racial communities it was aiming to aid and also ignored the later ideas and controversies of Noel Ignatiev. What do you make of that?
K.: I’m not sure. I read and wondered what planet these people are living on. It’s like the truth, the reality is so painful they explore these histories as barely explored mythologies and leave as much as they can out of it. Where are the left’s much vaulted critical thinking skills?
What about all the people in the STO that put years of their lives into that project only to watch it crash and burn? Did it strike you as strange that there seemed to be so little looked at there?
C.D.V.: It does strike me as strange. In fact, it strikes me as strange that few people discuss the 1970s and 1980s New Communist movement, they always focus on the anti-Revisionists in the 1960s and just want to pretend that the 1970s didn’t happen, and then the 1980s emerge as some kind of conspiratorial relapse. Both the far left and the liberal left does this: the liberal left pretends that Stagflation didn’t happen in the 1970s and neo-liberalism emerged solely as a political project, and the far left doesn’t want to look at the 1968 in France was put down without a single shot fired, how Nixon won in the end of the 60s, etc. The right is in denial about a lot of things too, but I am not a rightist, so it isn’t my responsibility to criticize it.
Do you think this runs into basically ideological tribalism where one gives one’s own group a heuristic of charity and the opposing group at a heuristic of demonization?
K.: I tend to see these partisan battles as the result of the way Judeo-Christianity has permeated secular political thinking – what you refer to as “political theology.” One group is either the “elect” or the “chosen people” who are always innocent and the other group is ignorant and beneath contempt. The good and noble group is the “light unto the nations” and the rest are seen as without redeeming or admirable features. Likewise any undeniable faults in your own group are understandable and “tragic” while the problems the other groups face are a result of their bad ideas and beliefs.
In looking at some of the left discourse, it seems to me to be less about a political movement for real change and more of a way to have a kind of secret and superior analysis of events always at hand – like many occultists seem to see occultism. You get to feel superior by knowing, for example, when an institution is “patriarchal” while never criticizing your own continuing participation in said institution.
Are those on the left really as smart as they think they are? If they are that smart, where is their challenging thinking? Why aren’t there hundreds of Glenn Greenwalds rather than just one? What kills me are all the leftists I know who claim to admire Greenwald and go right ahead cheerfully carrying water of Obama and ignoring everything he says. The “far leftists” do want to make their middle of the road liberal friends mad by attacking Obama with any real venom. I do not get it.
C.D.V.: I wrote something on Tim Wise attacking Greenwald for being a racist for saying that Ron Paul was better on war questions than Obama, but really, Ron Paul is. Furthermore it struck me that Wise was trading in the symbolic capital of a “black” President for the actual lived lives of brown people far away. Now admittedly both Wise and Greenwald are white, but it seemed like a laughably bad argument.
This brings me to another topic: even fairly well-off conservatives, as you have pointed out in some of your writings, say the correct liberal things on race in public and when they don’t the backlash is extreme. But as you point out, this can lead to a “leftism” and a “rightism” without much substance. For example, one can renounce one’s own privilege, say all the right things, hire the right people, and have a few symbolic members of the right minorities in your in-group but nothing fundamentally has changed for most people economically.
K.: There’s a couple of things here. One, Look at Ron Paul on drug use. Assuming he is a racist – and I don’t think he is at all, but let’s allow the assumption – he still wants to end the drug laws and release every black person in prison who’s there for drug charges. Obama, as we have seen, has been determined to not only continue the drug war, but his AG has even started to go after medical marijuana in places where the voters have approved it. In old Marxist-speak, can’t we then say that Obama is more “objectively racist” than Ron Paul? No one is pointing to this because the left has backed away from opposing the drug war. If anyone disputes this, then why aren’t they more enraged at Obama and his supporters for continuing it? Even the Marxists I know do not get on Facebook and rage at their liberal friends for supporting Obama. Do you see this? I do not see it.
We can say that the right has been co-opted by its own commitments to a Judeo-Christian ethic that has been secularized into “progressive” positions in various ways, but I would look to Hegel as to why they can’t resist this process. There is no “right” in America that is harshly critical of Judeo-Christianity the way there is in Europe – no meaningful tradition or one that has produced an insightful and substantive literature. Therefore, when the American right is appealed to in Christian terms, it tends to cave sooner or later.
We can go back to the work of Kenneth Minogue, who I have been reading recently, who carefully analysed the way being a liberal means having the right opinions and saying the right things – it doesn’t mean DOING all that much. People recite the opinions they know they are supposed to have and go right on living their lives the same way. Nothing changes except for what they say. That’s how everyone knows you’re a good person. Minogue – in his day – carefully criticized ideologies, but I wonder how the people who read him in the ’60s see how neoconservatism fulfilled every single one of his criteria for what an “ideology” consists of. Few on the right realize this.
C.D.V.: Well, I see plenty of hostility to the name of neo-conservative and to key figures, but I don’t see a lot of hostility to the policy consistency between Obama and Cheney in the US liberal and even some of the far left circles. Furthermore, when most liberals and left-liberals use the term neo-conservative, they honestly seem to have little idea where it is from. Or the closeness of the key figures in both the US and Europe to Social Democratic and Trotskyist positions.
“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.” – Thomas Paine
On Thelema and the still-birth of Contradiction
C. Derick Varn: Recently the prison chaplaincy and the criminal activity of members of the OTO have forced a lot of issues to the head. What do you see as the central contradiction in the developments in regard to the leadership of the OTO and Thelemic values in regards to this? Why would an exclusive organization being so lax in membership?
Do you see this as stemming from larger cultural contradictions?
Keith418: Thelema usually awakens anxieties that push people to extremes. This is one of the most important reasons why developing self-discipline – through the physical and mental work Crowley prescribes, as well as the note-taking and diary work – is so important. The scandals surrounding the OTO’s “prison ministry” are – I suspect – the result of people feeling an overwhelming need to prove that Thelema is “good” and a force for “goodness.” The problem is that this “goodness” is the “goodness” defined and determined by the liberal left and today’s liberal-left “managerial elites.” It’s not the “goodness” that Crowley taught, which is another kind of “goodness” entirely. People in the Order seem impelled to prove that Thelema isn’t “Satanic” – that it can heal the halt, the weak, and the dumb – and turn hardened sociopaths and murderers around. They have realized that they can’t do this and are reaping the karmic rewards of a very stupid self-protective kind of pseudo-naivete.
You don’t know how wrong you are about the “exclusive” part of the today’s Order. This is a group that has thrown away all of Crowley’s arguments on quantity vs. quality. They want as many people as they can get and they view the kind of “exclusive” point of view you are describing with nothing but utter abhorrence. We can see where this vehemence has landed them.
Is there a cultural contradiction here? The highest values devalue themselves. Egalitarianism – for some the highest value – opens the door to rapists. Democracy – for some the highest value – ushers in the tyrant. Compassion – for some the highest value – entails the embraces of the murderer. The Order’s fundamental contradiction is that it has rejected Crowley for mainstream values; but it will not admit this or come to terms with what this decision really means. Rather than seeking to make society conform to Thelema, it attempts to make Thelema conform to society.
C.D.V.: Is this not in some sense normal for an organization that does not self-purge regularly?
Keith418: I think you’re missing a basic problem. Quakers cannot be expected to run a government system designed for administrating a Roman Catholic diocese effectively. The managerial rules and tools won’t “work” for them because the hierarchy involved clashes with their values. Likewise OTO members who are, at best, ambivalent, and who, at worst, bitterly opposed to Crowley’s political ideals (and the metaphysics that determine those values) can’t run a managerial system he designed either. The basic conflict here is that people who are not fully committed to his model are seeking to run it. How could this possibly work?
The turnover in the Order is tremendous. It may not “purge” regularly, but people “purge” themselves regularly by quitting or drifting away. This also serves to provide the leaders with convenient scapegoats (“That person is no longer with us”) and it destroys any far-reaching institutional memory that might serve as a needed corrective.
C.D.V.: I see. What allowed for such a values drift in the leadership in the first place?
Keith 418: My working theory is that the slow diffusion of Crowley’s actual writings played a part in this and still does. Without a wide understanding of his work, many people believe they can make it all up themselves as they go along. By the time they realize they can’t… it’s too late. Either they get trapped in a state of denial or they quit. A number of former “big names” in the Order came to the conclusion that they really did not, and could not ever truly accept Thelema – so they left. The OTO doesn’t want to talk about this, no matter how prominent these people once were.
People in the OTO came from a ’60s-’70s counter culture background – or from a broader culture influenced by that culture and its shared values. If “do what thou wilt” equals “do your own thing” and “your thing” happens to be an unquestioning belief in egalitarianism and democracy, then doesn’t Thelema endorse your values just as they are? The tougher option – to recognize, interrogate, and trace the origins of your highest moral values – requires a lot more work.
We still see many versions of this. People feel free to talk about what Thelema means without even paying the slightest attention to what Crowley actually thought, wrote, or taught. The leadership is stuck, however, because not only do they know – at least on some level – that they are not in synch with his ideas, but that their own values and ideas aren’t enough to carry them forward. The irony is that the best leaders the OTO has, as a friend noted, are the ones with the courage to do what they think is right. The problems is that what they think is right is determined solely by left-liberal middle class morality and anxieties.
C.D.V.: Do you think the conflict of values there is similar to the sort of vulgar political contradictions you see in partisan organizations which have a incentive to make sure the leadership is in line but in doing so saps itself of the very subject formation that it needs to actually maintain itself without explicit contradiction?
Keith418: Back in the ’60s, the idea on the left was to “heighten the contradictions.” We don’t see people doing that now because everyone knows that there isn’t anyone running around contradicting themselves all the time. The left and the right no longer have the option of even pretending that such a plan, and such a demand, is one that they themselves can perform or that they even desire. Most human organizations have found that they are always riddled with increasingly bizarre contradictions and individuals seek to avoid acknowledging these contradictions… rather than observing them and “heightening” them. This cripples any analytic framework.
Cult is really is culture “writ small.” We see these issues play out more sharply in groups like the OTO, but it’s part of modern life right now. Consistency is seen as an unnecessary, or even as constituting an impossible burden. If you avoid critics, and court the echo chamber, you can pretend it isn’t a problem. The collapse of the grand narrative renders any consistent ideology impossible and as the crises start to mount, logic and consistency become luxuries no one can afford.
What’s the big picture? No one can take the time to ask because they are all too busy bailing water. When God died, did the logos, “the word” pass away with him? Did we then realize that reason wouldn’t do what it promised, or what we hoped it could accomplish? Is this what it means to no longer understand man as being “the rational animal”? Is that what the end of the “word” means?
I wonder if there are other “words” out there.
C.D.V.: Do you think this is part of Nietzsche’s quip about people still believing in god because they still believed in grammar?
Keith418: I think its part of the way we see the nature of the “logos” and reason, yes. After WWII, a fellow philosopher accused Heidegger of being “beyond” the word due to his support for the Nazis. This state, the place he accused Heidegger of being in, deserves some consideration. What happens when an entire society, or group of people, can no longer attain to any sort of consistency? What happens when rational thinking and behavior becomes too much of a burden for it? Rationality and logic, if we interpret the logos in this way (and it’s hardly the only way) make demands. What happens when large groups of people can no longer accept and meet those demands?
Capitalism and communism both insist on defining man as the “rational animal.” If we come to acknowledge that people aren’t really rational, if they never were, and if reason is only deployed as a justification after a decision has already been made, then don’t capitalist and communist models and proscriptions suffer as a result? I don’t see people coming to grips with this, in part, because I think they have lost the capacity for that kind of discussion. Cats can’t do advanced calculus, right?
C.D.V.: Do you see this draft from belief rationality to mere instrumental rationality? I believe Heidegger talked about this as well. In other words, in the case, a shift from strategic thinking in regards to Thelemic values to merely rationalizing certain immediate functions and trying to maintain those?
Keith418: Calculative thinking vs. Meditative thinking? I think Heidegger’s right about a lot of this, but I have to wonder, at this point, how good people truly are with this calculative thinking. Are all the apps really necessary? How many people does Twitter actually employ and pay? How many kids have stopped even considering whether they are doing a lot worse than their parents did and distract themselves by playing Angry Birds on their smart phones? Is that time wasting truly “calculative thinking”? At what point is pragmatism no longer pragmatic? Are we there yet?
I’d expect to see more widespread cultural criticism on the left – perhaps in the Frankfurt school model – ridiculing the techie culture and its consumer frenzies. It’s not there. Like the “Old New Left” I’m talking about, Crowley was a fierce critic of his times and his society. The Thelemic community has not only abandoned that kind of criticism, it bitterly resents anyone who seeks to revive it. Your friends on Facebook, I’ve noticed, seem to accept the current consumer culture as a given. They don’t attack it or look critically at the way it infantilizes everyone. Isn’t that peculiar?
C.D.V.: What do you make of the idea that calculative thinking without a meditative or even strategic focus tends to lose a sense of time preference because time preference requires a larger motivational goal to maintain itself? In other words, calculative thinking without a larger component undoes itself?
Keith418: Junger writes about the deep nature of figures buried in time and our desire to see aspects of our own experiences consecrated within time – or lifted out of mundane time. The collapse of a grand narrative leads to a kind of drifting time – which means few can make choices with the understanding that there are always “opportunity costs” involved. Hiroki Azuma insists that the grand narrative has been replaced by databases – which index and help people locate their desired unconnected thematic aspects in little bits and pieces. Those who can no longer grasp or relate to larger narratives go in search of the smaller parts and motifs that satisfy them. Will it stop there?
“If Man becomes an animal again, his arts, his loves, and his play must also become purely ‘natural’ again. Hence it would have to be admitted that after the end of History, men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, would perform musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas, would play like young animals, and would indulge in love like adult beasts.”
Divorced from time, how will anyone understand history – either the larger history they participate in and experience or their own individual history? Liberated from time, are people free? Or left with nothing?
C.D.V.: How deep to you think this lack of orientation goes? For example, you and I are both pretty critical of liberalism as a political practice, but would you say that even though it was achieved dominance as a governing paradigm and as a orientation of markets, it has also lost its earlier narrative?
Keith418: When the old world slips away, and the new one has yet to fully come into being, only ghosts remain. The coherence we see now is the “willing suspension of disbelief we know from games – a virtual narrative, or series of virtual narratives – that people cling to in the absence of the real thing. These pseudo-narratives are betrayed by their patently unsubstantial qualities – mere gossamer threads that evaporate like cotton candy on the tongue. This start-up, that pop-up, this new device, that new app – “Sure, it will be the next big thing,” people insist. Will it? Will, really? We all know better, don’t we?
But we have to go right on pretending. How can there be any sincere investigation when we already know that the application of real focus, the recovery of something like a meaningful attention span, will only tell us what we don’t want to know? This, we have discovered is the only guarantee left. So the pace of the games picks up and the hopes and dreams are summoned and discarded at such a rapid pace that they become a mockery of any authenticity
C.D.V.: So do returning to Thelema its old world slipping too? Or, is the New Aeon still in still-birth?
Keith418: That this is an interregnum period is, for all of us, obvious. In this period, as Gramsci noted, monsters are born. Instead of letting go of the old things, people insist on pretending they are still relevant. It’s all play-acting. It’s a game. They will go on doing that, I suspect, until something arrives – perhaps a “convergence of catastrophes” (to borrow an expression from Guillaume Faye) – that forces a real change. Does anyone really grow up until they have to?
In my estimation, under these conditions, Thelema grows more relevant by the hour. Crowley observed the child-like mindset of his times in the 1930s. What would he say now if he saw adults playing games on their smart phones all day long?
C.D.V.: Not much positive I suspect, but its eerie how much of the criticism of liberal modernity from the 30s or even Europe in 1890 still rings true. I suppose I will end on a question that you have been asked before, but why do you think Thelema is a total ideology and not just a religion in the modern sense of the later term?
Keith418: I think the “religion” characterization is dangerous – just as Crowley himself put it. Guenon is correct in arguing that any religion has to be distinguished from real metaphysics, simply because religion’s concern is always with sentiment and consolations. The absolute, which is the real focus of metaphysics, doesn’t care about your individual emotional state. Confusing metaphysics and religion helps neither – and it usually means that people intent on finding religious consolation start ascribing sentiment to metaphysical objects. This always ends badly. Al-Farabi saw the limitations of religion quite clearly and I very much agree with all his assessments. Crowley apprehended the emotional core of religious worship and his instructions in Liber Astarte are the evidence of his grasp of this subject. This text is neglected by most people calling themselves Thelemites – and this is unfortunate since grappling with it would give them an ability to control and direct their emotions, rather than letting their emotions control and direct them.
I suspect calling Thelema an ideology is better, but the term, for most people, implies a solely political focus. Ignoring the political dimension of Thelema is just as stupid as assuming that only its political features are essential.
On the state of the “Right”
Originally published at the (Dis)Loyal Opposition to the Modernity.
Keith418 and I have a long series of conversations which have been published on this blog about the state of right, the state of the left, and the relationships between class, religion, and the various political ideological developments. Keith418 and I share a set of critiques of “modernity” even though we come from very different philosophical assumptions. After the Obama/Romney Election, Keith418 and I exchanged some thoughts on the state of the “right” outside of the Republican party. While I am not a member of the “right” in almost any sense: the state of the right in the US and the fact that conservatism is, at heart, a more retrograde form of market liberalism mixed with some reactionary religious elements and is fundamentally different from both “the right” of Europe of the past. This needs to be understood by any one wishing to understand metapolitical trends regardless of where they are Marxian or not.
C. Derick Varn:: How would you describe the current state of the “right”? What do you think the “right” consists of and how does one separate the “right” from conservatism?
Keith418: The current Governor of California once told me that there were any number of “lefts.”
“There’s the preservationist left, the environmentalist left, the labor left, the anti-racist left, the peace left…”, he explained.
Can there be said to be a similar number of “rights”? I’ve always been sympathetic to the criticism, or merely the observation, that America can have no “authentic” right because of the American Revolution and the origins of America itself. A traditional sense of what the Europeans would define as “conservative” is impossible here, since the starting place is so different.
Those who see themselves on the “right” in the US have had a notoriously hard time defining themselves. They are suspicious of “ideologies” and prefer to rest discussions in the “timeless things” and to see their understanding as rooted more in their “hips” than in their “heads.” What’s the result? Often they serve as merely a “brake” on the dominant left’s agenda – and that “brake” doesn’t really work so well in many areas. Some are actually satisfied with simply being the “brakes.” Come on. Really? That’s all you want? This isn’t a “right” at all. It’s just slow motion left-liberalism.
Those on the American right, with a few exceptions, are often wedded to a kind of voracious capitalism that always threatens established traditions and order. Relentless capitalism and ever advancing technological innovations… how can you be a real “conservative” under these conditions? What are you seeking to “conserve” anyway? Do they understand this contradiction? Most of the time they don’t and, if once upon a time a few did, even fewer do now. When was the last time you saw anyone who understood what Richard Weaver was talking about on the right?
The only other thing that rips traditional societies and their institutions apart, and erases them and their meaning faster than unbridled capitalism, is war. Again, those on the “right” are enthusiastic militarists and usually don’t see the contradiction.
Study the way the gay rights movement was fomented during WWII and immediately after – Christopher Isherwood and others describe this process in detail – to see the problem for them here. The bellicosity of the neoconservatives is matched only by their reluctance to don a uniform themselves and risk getting killed, or having their own children maimed, by an IED in Afghanistan. The foreign policy they insist on becomes more of a sacrifice for everyone when the economy starts to tank.
The contrast is with the European right. They have a longer tradition of hostility to democracy and equality – even to Christianity in some quarters – that the American right never grasps. You can be a pro-Nietzsche European rightist. That’s an awfully lonely position in the US. The “European New Right” has never caught on in the US. After all, the only people pushing it for a long time were the Marxists at Telos. They are still issuing new translations of Schmitt and Junger, after all. How ironic is that? I don’t see this stuff, important as I may find it, making any real impact on anyone on the American “right” at all. Even the right-oriented people who read it resist any attacks on Christianity.
The majority of the right today in America are nothing more than increasingly transparent stooges for plutocrats and neoconservatives.The decline in the number of Evangelical Churches and familiar “Moral Majority” types – what we might call the “Christian Right” – means that there are going to be fewer and fewer people in this category – the demographics are killing them. Their leadership is aging out and their children aren’t joining the churches.
Those on what we might call the “far right” might be termed “dumb and dumber.” The “dumber” are miniscule, ignorant, impotent, gnashers of teeth – and also, I suspect, an ever-dwindling population. The people who once might have joined these kinds of militant groups are now playing video games in their homes and are strung out on legal and illegal pharmaceuticals – the former often supplied by the government.The “dumb” may be as educated as their “far left” Marxist counter-parts, but prefer to talk about pop culture all the time, and study for their GREs.
There are, of course, paleolibertarians and paleocons – some of which produce thoughtful analysis and good writing. But what has to be emphasized are their tiny numbers. These people may do some impressive work, but does it ever catch on and bleed over into the political realm? No. I’ve read their work for years now and it’s not too difficult to detect a leftward drift in much of what they write and think. Are they really opposed to gay marriage? Not so much. Are they fanatic anti-abortion types? Not really. When I exhort my friends on the left to read The American Conservative they think it’s all about Phyllis Schlafly types and homophobic diatribes. That’s hardly the case.
Is there a “populist right”? Not any longer. The demographics make that a losing proposition.
The right lost the culture war. Even many of the not-so-bright people on the right know this now. This loss has led to other losses – like with gay marriage. They didn’t realize, again very stupidly, that to win a culture war you need cultural soldiers – not just cultural consumers. You need talented artists, writings, musicians, and poets on your side to win. The right tends to drive these kinds of artistic people that arise in their communities – the most talented ones – right into the camp of the enemy. They never nurture or support them the way the left does – and they don’t reward them the way the market does.
C.D.V.: Was a focus on the culture war without a coherent ideology to go to battle with part of what doomed so much of the American right?
K.: We have to look at what Heidegger writes about when he talks about art and the will to power. Art is even more important, in a certain sense than the will, because it opens up new vistas, new areas, and new awareness to the will to power. Given this analysis, I’d be tempted to argue that the lack of artists hurt the ideology more than the lack of a coherent ideology hurt the artists. Artists usually aren’t ideologues – real artists anyway – but their art can shape and inform ideologies. This is certainly one of art’s highest transformational powers.
C.D.V.: What do you make of that position that while liberalism and leftism are being conflated more and more over time, and conservatism in the US and in the actual governments of most of the EU seems to head towards a similar liberal middle?
K.: The conflation you’re describing is explained by Hegel. This is the zeitgeist at work. In a bizarre sense, only its “success” can defeat it. Its adherents cannot give up on feeding its engines. There may be burps and hiccups here and there, but the centralization process grinds on – to bring us all to the “Kingdom of Heaven.” The eschaton must be Immanentized.
C.D.V.: Why so you think the right have produced so few artists after 1960s in North America?
K.: Well, for one thing, as I said, artistically inclined kids and students are not made to feel welcome in a philistine and anti-intellectual milieu. They then get driven into the waiting arms of the cultural elites and the left. The right is usually making due only with failures and duds. If you want people to lead, fight, and win your cultural war, you have to great artists, musicians, and writers are on your side. if you alienate those people, and make them feel unwelcome, you will certainly lose.I go to the theater a lot. Do you think there will ever be a serious, meaningful, right wing play produced in this country? Come on. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be. The pretensions and hypocrisies of the managerial liberal elites – their argot, their follies, their fads – are ripe for brilliant satire – and with a satirical reference coming from the right, even the far right. But that play will never be performed, will it?
C.D.V.: Not if it markets itself as right-wing, but also why do you think modern artists who go to the late inline start to not make as interesting art. I mean compare say T.S. Eliot to David Mamet?
K.: It wouldn’t need to “market” itself as coming the right. As soon as any play challenged the usual saints of the liberal pantheon or if the same play went to work skewering the typical bromides? The first reviews would nail it. But it wouldn’t even get that far. It would never be produced, even considered.The right, like the left, has yet to grapple with the death of god. How could one be a godless right wing author or playwright in 2012? The avant-garde is just as capable of hiding from real deep meaning and postponing an encounter with the absolute as the cheapest “bridge and tunnel” fare. There is no right wing avant-garde because there is no avant-garde any longer.Besides, the people who support the theater, and who go to see plays, do not want to have their own values to be scrutinized and found wanting – dramatically or otherwise. They want their beliefs and world views ratified and lionized. This is the same with all the arts. There was a brief moment, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when audiences were open to this kind of exploration in ways they aren’t now. But today? It’s not there.How much of what’s left of the right is fueled by bitterness and resentment? The bitter and resentful don’t have that much money to spend on the arts. If they did, would they be so bitter and resentful in the first place? Much of the sectarian left is also fueled by bitterness and resentment, and that’s why sectarian Marxists aren’t making many great films, novels, and plays any longer either.Mamet isn’t really on the right at all. He’s a neocon. He is, only, a slower moving liberal. This is why liberals and those on the left will still go to see his films and plays. They never would if he was really a conservative in any true sense.Your tastes will never magically lift you out of your circumstances. What you like and appreciate isn’t enough to radically alter your circumstances – because your tastes are always going to be created by your circumstances. This is what Bourdieu teaches us – and its true even if very, very few people find it an empowering truth.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the tendency in America for those people who claim to be on the right to don a mantel of populism for otherwise explicitly elitist venture?
K.: There has been both a populist right and a populist left, but populism is a tough mistress – because the people change their minds – and defining what they want, and what can be delivered on, can be very tricky. The demographic changes that were indicated by the last election are instructive here.Conventional wisdom tells us that the right tells the middle class that the poor are impoverishing them. The left tells the middle class that the rich are ripping them off. What if they are both right? This, to me, might be the origins of a true populist appeal – but who would pay to get that message out? The oligarchical nature of contemporary politics means that all political struggles are reduced to factional fighting among the managerial elites. Where is there room for any populism there?
C.D.V.: What do you see as a way forward for an American right?.
K.: Well, for one thing, I’ve come to the conclusion that any political movement that wants to challenge the status quo needs a lot more journalists and far fewer pundits. The latter is no adequate substitute for the former. Any way forward has to be paved with facts and knowledge – not just opinions. And if you rely on others to get that knowledge? You’re screwed from the start. This is also true of the far left. They don’t “do” journalism. Sectarian leftists don’t investigate and report. They repeat the “party line.” The irony (as a friend noted), here, is that “liberals” and not sectarian Marxists (or Marxists of any kind), do the best journalism. That has to end.We also have to ask what “right” we are talking about? The paleocon right? Well, one interesting fact was that during the last election, Ron Paul generated more enthusiasm and interest among young people and college students than any other candidate. How much of this was due to his personality and how much of it was due to his message of anti-imperialism and limited government? Paul was seen as a truly oppositional figure and the kids got that, even if they didn’t always grasp the rest of his message. In addition, I think we’d both agree that the leading paleocon journal, The American Conservative, is one of the most stimulating and thought-provoking political journals out there. It’s also written so that many average people can read it profitably, but it isn’t so simplistic that it bores people with college educations.I am still waiting to see how much – if any – influence the European New Right is ever going to have in America. On the one hand, some of the people involved in it are brilliant and the traditions they draw from are fascinating, affirming, and pertinent. On the other hand, the deep and principled antipathy to Christianity the thinkers share renders them a hard sell to most Americans on the right.Culturally speaking, the right is often at its best right now when it satirizes. “Mister” – a blistering satiric novel by Alex Kurtagic – is a case in point. When the right tries to produce stirring, “he man” dystopian science fiction, it fails miserably. But when it concentrates on satirizing PC culture and the mainstream managerial argot, even if that parody drifts into outright nihilism, it can succeed admirably.I would counsel people on the right to scrupulously avoid fantasy and science fiction altogether. This is a temptation that many find powerless to resist, but it’s always an escapist urge. Instead, I think realistic “kitchen sink” plays and bitter satire is the way to go. We need more on the right to be thinking like Brecht. The right has a sense of grandiosity it needs to tame. Instead, it needs to explore the internal struggles of individuals as they cope with the mess that is modernity. It needs to find the courage and maturity to give up on the spaceships and the square jawed heroes… and “think small.”