Saturday, 28 March 2015

On Spiritual Alchemy

Alchemy may be taken, in any of its pre-modern forms, as an attempt to understand and control matter within the framework of a world of gods and God. It has, in this respect (both in relation to material science and healthcare), largely been displaced by scientific method and medicine. It should be of largely antiquarian interest. However, the residue of this world view has re-emerged in the modern world as 'spiritual alchemy': the attempt to read back into the past an analogical element that applies, to the self, soul and mind, the method and findings of material alchemy.

The idea that lead (the material self) can be transmuted into gold (spiritual perfection) through mercury (the quickening process of thought) is self-evidently a model of human development and we will return to this when we reach Jung below. The later idea that the Philosopher’s Stone might be used to summon or communicate with angels may be a ‘real belief’ (which it certainly was) or an ‘analogical belief’ by which we mean that the Stone represents the catalyst for a type of thinking that can command and understand a Heraclitean flux of thoughts and emotion. This is a belief system that says that analogical thinking within a particular framework can aid personal transformation and. like all belief systems that do not argue against the findings of science, it cannot be argued against with any certainty once it has abandoned the physical alchemical laboratory.

The Historicity of Alchemy

This is much more like the modern mechanistic read-back of scientific analysis into our ideas of mind than we may think. It is simply one out of our time and place. The modern scientific model of mind is clearly flawed but that is no reason, in itself, to allow an even more flawed older model of 'science' to become the basis for a retrospective and a largely poorly evidenced attempt to build up a hermetic positive psychology. Are we prepared to accept knowingly that what we are engaged in is a mythic re-construction? As poetic or artistic analogy, on the other hand, alchemical language has its own strange beauty, a beauty perhaps first presented by the German mystic Jacob Boehme but also by other alchemists of the early modern period such as Heinrich Khunrath.

There are analogous systems of thought in China and India and there is no doubt that it is not a modern invention in the West. There is a clear history going back to the Hermetica of Thrice-Great Hermes and probably beyond. But we also have to remember that few 'scientific' writings have survived from the Ancient World. Diocletian ordered the burning of alchemical texts after a revolt in Alexandria (292) which, in itself, suggests some important political aspect to such material in what was the central port for the supply of essential grains to the over-populated urban centre of the Empire. But whatever was taken from Hellenism to Europe via such significant Arab figures as Khalid Ibn Yazid, it was not 'political'.

Something very dangerous to the existing order of empire had been suppressed and turned into something mystical and private, much as modern science has often been shifted into New Age models by people desperate to invoke a meaning for the void and yet functionally powerless. Perhaps what Diocletian was doing was little different from the imperial policies of Germany and Russia against the Polish intellectual elite in 1940 - the determined destruction of a particular culture so that it could never stand against them. The fact of the Roman Empire holding its sway for many more years than the monster-empires of Twentieth Century Europe may well have shifted the progressive community of thinkers towards their salvation as individuals within more extensive state-backed cosmopolitan faith traditions.

The Use of Alchemy

Using the operations of the material world to describe the 'spiritual' nature of man is a common human trope in times of alienation from the ability to think freely – the imperial systems (eventually Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, Muslim) have offered ready-made approved models into which archetypal thinking can be forced to fit. We may think equally of the machine model of eighteenth century ‘philosophes’ under the Ancien Regime right through to modern philosophers' attempt to describe our minds in terms of hardware and software. Prevailing orthodoxy always has gaps for creative analogy. To describe our intrinsic, inexplicable being in terms of the retort and of alchemical transmutation was simply another case of trying to explain and live out our complex nature in terms that seemed analogically appropriate at that time.

The 'discovery' of spiritual alchemy in the late nineteenth century occult revival should be seen not so much as a seeking after truth as of an attempt to avoid the brutal implications of the new positivistic world emerging before the eyes of an insecure Western urban middle class. Because it could not find analogies for actual experience from contemporary analytical knowledge, it looked backwards, for lack of alternatives, to older scientific models – the exact opposite of the process of near trans-humanism in Russia which was explored by Andrew Vee. This reactionary approach to the world implicit in occult spiritual alchemy is rarely commented upon but this is not to find it wanting.

The 're-constructionist' approach to alchemy served a purpose as a mythic, analogical, artistic and creative response to the fact that descriptions of the world that were undoubtedly true in regard to the material world were far from the experience of men actually living in the world. New myths were required. Until the rise of phenomenology and existentialism (and the reactions to the latter), a mechanistic view of the human condition was the only alternative to an organised religion that failed to take account either of the new science or of personal experience. Until men and women had found their own myths from philosophies that could escape the clutches of Plato and Aristotle (which could not happen until very recently indeed), the source of such myths had to lie either in the past as reconstructionism or in the future as science fiction.

There is the path of occultism or Russian Cosmism, of Crowley or Wells, of rosicrucianism or scientology. Nineteenth century and twentieth century 'occult' or New Age ideas will often include highly pragmatic attempts to link the language of alchemy to personal development. Obscure symbolism and secret societies have become the chosen tools for persons dealing with a world they do not comprehend on the terms explained by the priests (the scientists) of our day. For them, it may have worked functionally and materially but engaging with the new priesthood is highly demanding of time and energy and intrinsically unsatisfying. Like all belief systems, even science requires an initial act of faith that can have no rational base so why not find another irrational base and see where it leads - so long as you do not try to build an aircraft with it. If the core framework of such attempts depends too often on misreadings and re-readings of texts (such as those of Hermes Trismegistus) outside their original context, one thinker, Jung, was attempting an analogical approach that updated alchemy to the world of analytical psychology.

The Insights of Jung

The interesting and more modern attempt by Jung to demonstrate that alchemy's hermetic language has a 'spiritual' context, an exposure of the Self's access to the collective unconscious, suggests something that might be treated both rationally and artistically. We have here an attempt to synthesise scientific reason (as a mode of thinking) with an exploration of the common psychic heritage of humanity whose drivers are the non-scientific worlds of spirit, magic and art. This is still an analogical use, a doubtful framework, yet Jung is probably correct that alchemy is a useful tool (amongst others) in trying to understand what the grounding for human psychology may be when hard science has reached its limits.

His master work in this respect is 'Psychology and Alchemy' which first appeared in German in 1944 but he wrote on the subject throughout his life from the 1920s until his death. Nevertheless, the introduction to the master work somewhat pre-supposes the 'spiritual' as a really existing concept instead of the less comfortable but more likely thesis that what he is exploring is merely undiscovered and probably undiscoverable science. In short, even here, spiritual alchemy is either a retro-manufactured tool for personal self and social development (whether it uses Western, Tantric or Taoist forms) or it is an exploratory tool for deep psychology into territories where scientific analysis cannot currently and may never go.

Jung, in this respect, takes a wrong turn but a wholly decent one. But, although no one can judge in these matters, the wrong turn is not the analogical use of alchemy as a symbolic path and theory for ‘spiritual’ development. Instead, faced with the failure of scientific method at the limits of human experience, he falls back on the 'spiritual' instead of moving forward (as he had once done in his own 'Red Book') into the territory of art and magic, the occlusive methods for reaching the Self.

What Alchemy Is Today

Alchemy, when it is not early scientific exploration within particular cultural frameworks, is not a matter of the spiritual or of science but of art and creativity, a more disciplined hand-maiden to the repressed sexuality of symbolism and the wild dream world of surrealism. To engage in spiritual alchemy is to add to the armoury of techniques that question the Self (in Jung's more rounded sense of Self) and it provides a framework for psychological self-management, using symbolism that can refer to the otherwise unspeakable.

It is, if you like, a practical and useful psychology of introspection but it cannot be redemptive because there is no redemption, simply different states of being that are more or less resonant or in tune with one’s self. What comparisons of Self and alchemical analogy and between Western and Eastern traditions can do is create an insight into the functioning of mind that no formally analytical mode of research can possibly match.

Analogies between alchemical thought and the process of individuation are never certain or absolute but they hit the ‘spot’ of so many people so often that we are talking of mythic operations that appear somehow biologically grounded. Analytical investigation cannot cope with the scale of humanity and its operations in time and in relation to itself so the theory of archetypes and their repetition in many varied contexts shows us templates, creatively re-imagined under local conditions, which are at the heart of our myths.

The infinite variation of these forms means that there can be no analytical law of archetypes or their operation but there are patterns. Coming to terms as a Self with these patterns, re-imagining them for our circumstances, is also at the heart of our own self-creation. Thus, we come around slowly to a ‘modernisation’ of spiritual alchemy, a process by which we engage with the archetypes, including such process variations as lead-mercury-gold or man-as-machine or software-driving-hardware, and, in critiquing them, we discover ourselves.

Jung’s driver was the search for ‘individuation’ – a concept far more useful than anything using the word ‘spiritual’ which gives excessive ‘reality’ to externalities and their hold over us. If Jung was right that alchemy was a form of proto-psychology (and there is evidence that this may be both true and an over-simplification), then its insights remain useful although the ‘myth of Gnostic survival’ should perhaps be taken less uncritically.

Above all, the simple idea that mercury (that is, the process of communication and flux) will transform our inherited leaden nature into something more individuated is not only intuitively right but interesting to consider in the light of the alchemical power on us of social networking. Social networks are not alchemically irrelevant because if we are conscious of their mercurial effects and make deliberate use of them in that light, we are more likely to become individuated over and against ‘real’ but inherited and enforced social bonds.

This is potentially liberatory, but both anarchic and troubling to traditionalists who may feel more relaxed when they consider that most of the users of facebook will not be seeking gnosis but merely the reinforcement of existing social bonds and attitudes and entertainment. We are probably engaged now in the biggest alchemical experiment in human history with the internet representing the application of mercury to the lead of humanity. The question is open whether this will create social gold or not.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Riots and the Crisis of Late Capitalism

The English Riots in 2011 caught a lot of people by surprise. It might be worth revisiting them as dire warnings emerge of similar violence because of 'austerity' on the one hand and negative assets affecting middle class savers on the other. We have our doubts on both scores. There is evidence that the rioting owed a great deal to social deprivation and social exclusion but also to a longstanding dynamic of opposition between street-based cultures and law enforcement that predated the 2008 crash and the world of 'cuts'. Similarly, historical evidence suggests that the middle classes do not riot or even demonstrate but turn to populist parties who promise them relief from harsh reality and the burden of history.

At the time, the marketing industry which had played up aspirational rebellion until that date was thoroughly caught out by events. It has since taken an even stronger turn towards the classically conservative strategy of corporate social responsibility, directed more at placating authority and legislators than speaking for their poorer customers. Young males can respond to messages of defiance and individualism but it was clear that they were not supposed to act out the fantasy that had been presented to them on a plate by clothes and shoe manufacturers. 

Fantasy became reality when Levi's notion of a young male squaring up to riot police actually did square up to riot police. This led to one of many 'moral panics' where analysis of the long term structural causes of a social phenomenon could be ignored in favour of a wave of emotion, resulting in the type of gut reactions that would only store up problems for the future. No one was thinking. No one is thinking.  The response of the marketing community came down to an attempt to answer the question at the heart of the political crisis of our time: to sell a good or service, does one appeal to the emotional instinct of the customer base or respond to the emotional reaction of a herd-like media and political culture in a state of confusion, ignorance and fear? Normally, the marketing man goes for the customer and ignores society but, in a crisis, he will swing violently back towards what he believes to be society but is, in fact, merely his terror that the media will persuade the national executive to order the legislature to 'do something' on the basis that 'something must be done' and that that something will restrict the business' ability to make a profit.

We had an answer to the question very quickly in 2011: business joined in the panic and suddenly became 'socially responsible', meaning, in fact, conservative in the worst sense, part of the problem of suppressing discontent rather than stating firmly that it is merely responding to the mood of the time as sound business and expecting Government to do what Government is supposed to do, govern. If people are discontented, it is not because of moral laxity (an abstract without meaning except from the stand point of the comfortable moraliser) but because they have reasons for discontent - local policing, lack of opportunity, overcrowding, underemployment, generational lack of respect (from the old to the young), the hypocrisy of the rich and the lack of representation by a serious Left (the real crisis for the under class and the young).

A video now removed from YouTube at the time showed an articulate employed black telling it like it was to the Mayor of London. This man was bright, talented and on the right side of the law but he was not happy. He did not have to look far to see a world where others no better than he was were still raking in bonuses despite (in the eyes of the many) bringing the country to its economic knees. In fact, it was incompetent Government that failed to create a framework for hyper-capitalism that had brought things to the edge, a fact probably to be carefully forgotten by many centre-left voters in May. On the other side, and equally legitimately, a video spread at the time showed a tough black lady taking on the rioters. This encapsulated the tragedy of those riots. Small traders and property owners with little capital were being ruined and threatened by people with no capital who had nothing left but unthinking ill-educated carnival politics with which to express themselves

Both sides in the same community were shoved into the position of the soldiery of the competing powers in 1914. Neither side asked then why they should even be in this position and neither side is asking that question today. One reason is that there is no reliable political force ready to intermediate within communities against elites unless we think the intellectually ramshackle UKIP plays that role faute de mieux. Just as in the 2014 'celebrations' (because that is what they often seemed to be) of the 1914 fiasco, no one is interested in the absurdity of the fact that two sets of masses should have more in common with each other than either should with the preening political class that purports to rule them. And yet they set about destroying each other on equal terms (the magistracy speaking here for the small trader) - and with enthusiasm. The draconian and eighteenth century conveyor belt that doled out 'justice' after 2011 was the true signal of what we were dealing with - the liberal facade of society was dropped by the magistracy in order to remind us where ultimate power lay, a power that can clearly cover up systematic child abuse with impunity and no doubt herd us into camps or conscription if it ever blunders into another war.

Here is where one has to put in the mantra that all this does not justify the riots. The riots, of course, were not political as we generally understand them but closer to 'carnival' - anarchic, criminal if strangely authentic. People suffered but not the people who should have done. And, ironically, the most admirable reaction to the whole business was that of The (Tory) Lord Harris. He did not pontificate or moralise. He did not even try to analyse (the job of others). He dealt like a practical man with a fact and offered material assistance to the victims and called on the Government to provide jobs. Yup! A Tory. How inconvenient for the Official Left. The mantra of moralistic blame from 'commentators' of the communitarian school missed the point. The riots were a fact on the ground. They happened because they were ready to happen. It is like expecting to humiliate Germany in 1919 and not expect another war. You can moralise all you like about why Germans should have accepted liberal democracy and bleat and whine after the event - but the dead of the 1930s and 1940s are on the tab of the vengeful non-German liberal democrats who did not think.

Business is now stuck in the middle of all this because something bad is going to happen if we do not get economic growth going elsewhere in the world and if our own falters (as it probably will when we choose the weak centre-left over a cynically half-competent centre-right). For two decades or so, business, for example, has tried to ride the tiger of incipient populism and weakening states by trying to collaborate with elites in developing a manipulative liberalism that changes nothing but gives us a fine rhetoric based on charitable works and not getting caught, all managed through the art of the lobbyist. Stage by stage, the Left has degenerated into a transcendental bourgeois idealism and business and the State into cringing manipulators who think they have the whip hand when they do not. The final stage of this game is being reached today in Europe where human rights idealists undercut the very economic base of modern welfare societies by insulting the people who buy their exports (as we have seen in Sweden and Germany) while continuing to do nothing to invest in the national infrastructures that will permit new wealth to meet future needs. Weak states prepared to be thugs in a crisis, a cowering evasive business community and bullying activists and single issue NGOs conspire to create the conditions for right-wing populism and short bursts of alienating street violence.

The selling process, whether political or commercial, is, of course. an emotional process, a manipulative process, of entering into the consciousness of its targets and tweaking it into an action in the interest of the sellers. It is not much different from the classical view of magicians of their craft. Politicians are also not much different from salesman except that they are 'channellers', responding to the emotions of voters and seeking to manipulate them for their own ends, raising intermediary demons (the media) who, like all raised demons, are untrustworthy tricksters. In the end, the only authentic behaviour seems to be that of the people themselves at the hard edge of the crisis, something clearly tapped into by Syriza in Greece - the rioters rioting in a context of their own, the police trying to do their job under difficult conditions, the victims of rioting and those attempting to clean up afterwards. Four sets of flotsam and jetsam pushed hither and thither by their masters.

In the 2011 case, the magistrates panicked, the politicians panicked, the media panicked and the marketeers panicked - the only people not panicking were the population at large. Listen to conversations around you at the time and the question was always: why did this happen now? Yet this was a question studiously avoided by the panic-stricken Establishment because it was an inconvenient question, partly because nobody knew the answer although everyone had an opinion, an opinion usually cast in terms of morality and 'oughts' rather than what was actually happening on the ground. The Establishment does not really want to answer that question or any other significant question (such as why the British care system turned into a recruiting machine for organised crime and pederasts) because each question raises still more serious questions about what the politicians and the media have been doing for the last three or four decades, perhaps since the Edwardian era. We, on the other hand, can certainly raises our own questions about whether the political and economic system is more broken that we had all thought.

The 2011 Riots and the Saville case are not the first times that the Establishment had failed to predict an event of great importance - we might start with the fall of the Soviet Union or the rise of Islamic terror - but failure to predict economic collapse and urban mayhem are the less forgivable because there is no excuse about lack of data. The 2011 Riots are history but the fact that no serious questions were raised then is matched by the continued inability to ask the fundamental questions arising out of the multitude of child abuse events happening now. But before jumping into bed with authoritarian moralists who wished to re-introduce the strap, conscription, hanging and all forms of social terror to a free young population, most of whom did not riot, or apply them to paedophiles today, we should ask this: how is it that the persons we hired to govern us failed to structure a society where everyone feels they have opportunity, where perhaps one in five of the population is now on the economic edge and in which policy can be made rationally before a crisis instead of irrationally after one? We could learn a great deal from Lord Harris' humane, practical approach to the business of recovery. It strikes me as no surprise that an experienced Tory businessman of the old school should have put the rest of the panicking and hysterical political elite to shame then. We need similar practical men from all schools of practical experience to do so now.

The Tantra Series - Rethinking Tantra

For those looking for my Tantra series on Position Reserved, this has been moved as a whole to another site as a 'blog book' - - where it has been re-ordered so it can be read in sequence. The posts there will not be added to so you should consider it a blog of record and for reference only. Any further commentary will be found on Position Reserved. The original text has been removed from Position Reserved.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Experimental Approaches to Contemporary Gnosis

Contemporary 'new spirituality' presents us with a number of problems: it employs patently false narratives in closed communities; it presumes to have access to a world beyond the more sophisticated materialism of contemporary science (or it appropriates a fake 'quantum' version of materialism); and it holds to a primitive essentialism in a time of existentialist insights.

Keeping Hold of the Esoteric Baby

But there is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water in rejecting simplistic belief in universal consciousness, demanding a cogent materialist explanation for everything under conditions where the material world is imperfectly understood and failing to understand the social and individual function of this no-thing called spirituality.

The very term 'spirituality' is slippery and rightfully presented by the analytical philosophers as virtually meaningless. What we are talking about is 'belief that gives meaning', an inward state that need have no connection with any objective reality but which can be constructed as 'shared' in order for it to be built into the edifice of a practice, a cult or a religion.

How can we recapture 'belief that has meaning' as a legitimate aspiration in a post-modern culture but in a way that still takes account of science and stops scientific materialists from claiming that they know far more than they do. They may know that Creationism is foolish but they do not know 'for a fact' that many other things that others believe that they know are decisively and provenly false.

The plethora of new religions provides a pathway of possibilities once we have removed the bad history in most of their mythic narratives, once we have stood back from the anthropological and sociological aspects of cultish-ness and once we have critiqued guides and leaders who are often half-educated at worst and naive at best. But what is then left?

What is left is, first, a series of techniques for accessing the very material but untestable or definable elements of the mind that amount to what most people mean by spirit or soul and, second, a competing set of analogical narratives for describing what is otherwise not describable, certainly not in positivistic scientific terms.

We might see a gnostic mentality (rather than gnostic dogma) as useful in being able to tap into the language of such mythic and artistic narratives. The primary narrative is one of spiritual alchemy to ensure that we, and not society or our pasts, are in control not only of our conscious minds but of a great deal of our unconscious (aka spiritual) minds as well.

Many of these techniques might conceivably be derived from the further reaches of the New Age Movements and from Neo-Paganism but they are much more likely to derive from a dynamic and critical appreciation of the occult and esoteric movements, shorn of its mumbo-jumbo and seen as sets of practice defined as successful by its material effects or transformative illusions.

New Age Insights

Let us get the New Age and New Pagan communities out of the way. Much of theosophy may be arrant nonsense but there are, no doubt, great insights in Krishnamurti's rebellion and in Ouspensky as interpreter of Gurdjieff - two men who took flawed models and used them as the basis for further thought.

There may be important value to be acquired in the 'technologies' of Steiner and Subud but also in the whole school of positive thinking and 'placebo effects', of 'attunement', of aura and colour effects, of an attitude of mind towards personal development and even, with caution as to its actual use, the insights of NLP.

The Emissaries of Light and the Template Network may actually have discovered techniques that deserve further investigation and a great deal could be learned from Raelian sexual and social philosophies (if you can detach them from their mildly demented but amusing and harmless foundation myth). So let's put these on the list for critical investigation.

Neo-Pagan Insights

Neo-Paganism can teach a sense of place as placebo and the creation of imaginative mythic narratives (such as the Matter of Britain) that permit the creative construction of art, literature, sacred places, and the revitalisation of local myth, folklore and the 'faery' tale. Such a place may be a City or suburb or garden or corner of a room as much as a field.

It can also inspire us to the logic of sustainability without requiring the absurd reification of Nature into some benign essence which it is not - let alone the meaningless New Age version that builds a brutal cold Goddess out of Gaia, the planet. The divine feminine may even be interpreted a divisive invention to buttress ego-problems in a flawed society so let's throw that one out of the window.

The planet is certainly a system that we should understand but it adapts blind to our existence and is no divinity. Nature is de facto cruel and wasteful. Sustainability has to be functionally related to what it is to be human amongst other humans, a personal and social as well as formally environmental sustainability.

Finally, there is shamanic technique - inauthentic perhaps against surviving indigenous traditions but recoverable in urban settings or linked perhaps to place and past without racialist or ethnicist overtones. When the British adopt Voodoo, they adopt this technique as their own.

We might then 'play' with Raymond Buckland's Seax-Wica, with Robert Cochrane or with Heathenry but we should set our hearts against accepting forgeries and false histories which merely repeat the Christian tradition of propagandistic lying and re-interpretation of history to 'win souls'. We can be better than this.

Occult Insights

And what of the Occult and Esoteric? There is ancient mining to be done in the Kaballah and in the Tarot as psychic ordering mechanisms, without any necessity for the Gematria (which strikes me as a somewhat autistic technique but one which may add value to some).

There is certainly no further benefit to be had in mystic lineages and traditions, in hidden masters or in ancient pre-Husserlian dogma. The esoteric also gives access to sex magick, possibly over-rated as a tool but, nevertheless, one that taps directly into who we are and how we relate to others. Perhaps an honest sexual magic that is more sophisticated, shorn of fetishistic ritual and reconstructed as a mutually guided vitalism, might be more useful to most of us than our current culture of ‘naughtiness’ and fear.

Without falling into the trap of traditionalism, a core knowledge of neo-Platonic, Judaeo-Christian, Egyptian, Persian, Sufi, Hindu, Chinese and other East Asian traditions does not require that we accept their essentialisms but merely that we understand our own existentialism better through the prism of the choices of the past.

The study of correspondences, of sympathetic magic, of visualised ritual (arguably, the best sexual magical ritual of all) and of transgression within a self-constructed ethical framework is not irrationalism but hyper-rationalism if the study is directed at questioning not merely the reality of the phenomena with an open mind but the meaning of the experience of the reality as reality.

Within the occult tradition, Thelema is a religion of sorts with insights if fundamentally flawed as a counter-intuitive derivative of Christianity, over-elaborated by the successors to Crowley, especially the retrograde Typhonian and subsequent 'dark' traditions. 'Love is the Law' begs the question of what Love is but it is a sound starting point that is glossed on the right hand by the Wiccan 'an harm no-one'. What is not required is some wise inner circle speaking as if the masses were scum. What is required is an egalitarian and libertarian (as captured by Jack Parsons) approach that brooks no formal or restrictive religious structures.

There is practical psychology hidden away in this territory as well. The early Dion Fortune was reacting to a fundamental issue for most of us in mentalising responses to bullying. She also offers a bridge to that sense of place (Britishness in her case) in neo-paganism that we discussed earlier.

There are the insights of Chaos Magick (Carroll, Hine, Anton Wilson, Spare, even the eclectic acquisition of Dick and Lovecraft) which offer ultimate opportunities to detach ourselves from belief in order to test technique scientically before returning to belief when we are ready.

And, finally, there is the Left Hand Path of Vama Marga Tantra as tool for personal empowerment. Transgression and aggression, even violence, are active forces in the world and we must command them, lest they command us.


We have here quite a menu of techniques that do not need us to believe in the absurd and can enable anyone to find the meaning that will mean most to them. I have not even started to address the world of the hyper-real - meaning derived from films, fantasy novels and comic books. There is certainly no need to fall into the error of the desert religions in requiring some divine entity or that of the East (in assuming a mythic universal consciousness) or descending into a countervailing nihilism.

The technique as technique is a path way to more than simple New Age personal development and fluffy well meaning or untenable mythic narratives amongst small cults or a perpetual adolescent belief in actual dark demons. It is the pathway to personal choice about how to construct oneself out of the raw material of oneself - the most advanced type of materialism.

Personal development techniques and a critical review of past traditions, a sense of place and a commitment to a new definition of sustainability and an active exploration of transgressive and irrational operations within an existentialist ethic may construct more meaning that works for us than all the loss of self into some predetermined religious framework.

In short, we do not need religion at all. We do not even need to be hung up on spirituality. All we need to do is take command of that bit of ourselves for which science has no current explanation and make it work for us.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Challenges for Post-Christian Europe

Christianity in Europe is far from dead. It has split into many elements, liberal and conservative, communitarian and evangelical, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and free-thinking, with many offshoots including imported and indigenous 'new religions' derivative from it (often from America). Yet the cultural model of idealism towards and faith in the other ('God'), salvation and (to a greater or lesser extent) tradition and good works still makes up a considerable part of the European branch of Western culture. Into this complexity, the Judaic element is added with its own mix of liberal and conservative, comunitarian and free-thinking ideals and we have, more recently, the re-irruption of Islam with elements that are hyper-traditionalist as well as others seeking the path of assimilation and collaboration following the Jewish precedent.

The mix becomes ever more complex with time. The religious wars of the early modern period and the Enlightenment brought us not only the opening for Judaic thought and for both liberal Christianity and an evangelical and traditionalist reaction to it but an opportunity for atheism and 'ideology' which became the basis for secular faith systems - nationalism, both authoritarian and liberal, liberalism (the currently dominant ideology), various forms of socialism (as complex as Christianity and perhaps even to be considered a Judaeo-Christian heresy adapted to science and materialism) and, finally, anarchisms, existentialism and scientific atheism. We might add, more latterly, neo-paganism, whether innocent and associated with post-fascist traditionalism, and the so-called hyper-real religions developed out of popular culture and modern myths such as those surrounding UFOs.

Have I missed any? Theosophical movements may have declined but Buddhism has a position in European society and there is space for nearly all the non-tribal Eastern religions as exemplars or philosophies of life. You may add to taste what I have forgotten. Whichever way we look at it, the sheer scale of the variance of belief is staggering compared to the early modern and modern totalitarian attempts to impose monotheism or a single ideology on a population - let alone the 'tolerant' conformity of a hegemonic Christianity in the liberal world of the nineteenth century. This is the chaos of late paganism or of the East held together only by the monopoly of force that a secular authority can maintain. Historically, it has often been convenient for that force to take one religion and endorse it and crush others if that will bring victory or order - Constantine springs to mind.

If there are modern tendencies in that direction, they are not towards imposing a religion but uniting forces against a religion - radical Islam. Both traditionalists and liberals are conflicted even here, some choosing confrontation for the sake of 'purity' and the imagined past and others seeking accommodation with the majority of Muslims as shared peoples of the book or just as political realities in our inner cities who have to be taken account of. But, unless political order completely breaks down (if it does do so, it is at the crumbling far periphery of the European Project), the presumption of the authorities remains one of tolerance, secular order and allowing religious moderates to enter into policy-making within the framework of democratic persuasion and political organisation. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the indifferent and the agnostic - those who have no real interest in the myth of the spirit or invisible creatures - have votes and want to be consumers and producers first and rely on the movies not the churches for their access to the fantastic.

But underpinning this struggle within and between the myths and legends that came in with a desert wind between the first century BC and seventh century AD under the Pax Romana and then as a political tool for kings and emperors subsequently and then with the reaction to obscurantism (often creating new obscurantisms) that took place from the sixteenth century to the twentieth and with the arrival of spiritualities from below under American, Eastern and nationalist influence later still, there are ancient mental models that preceded these waves of external and democratic mental change. We should ask whether and where they shave life and potential today (or present dangers perhaps). I have identified six that still exist below the surface of or alongside the Christian sub-stratum in our cultural-archaeological dig. You may think of others but I suggest these are the six that make up our indigenous pre-modern European culture and act as 'to-hands' for political and cultural actors in our future.

Strand One - The Athenian Texts

In each of these cases, we are less concerned with what these traditions actually were or meant in the past and more concerned with what they have come to mean and what they could mean in the future. Nowhere is this more true than with the mythology surrounding Athenian democracy. Although it is now righly criticised as a flawed democracy with slaves and a subservient role for women as well as implicitly xenophobic, in its historic context it was a remarkably robust system for sovereign independence and then empire before being crushed by Alexandrine imperialism. The core of the ideology is of a closed democracy as necessarily the 'good society' and it stands as challenge to multicultural fluidity of the globalising West. Historically, it was influential on American democracy and on Jacobinical republicanism and so, by twists and turns, on both liberalism and fascism as well as on all forms of republicanism. It stands as an ideal with continued potential for misapplications of notions of purity and conformity on the one hand and self-determination and freedom on the other.

Strand Two - The Dialectic Between the Roman Republic and Empire

The Roman Republic and the subsequent Empire might appear to be opposites as models for the future. They could be contrasted in later generations as narratives of decadence or of failure but they also present a particularly strong narrative of increasing order undermined by internal dissent, over-accommodation of the barbarian (external ideologies and forces) and accommodation with the popular (the Roman mob and Christianity). They are an 'object lesson' - the story is one of an ideal perverted and one where the ideal could be restored. That ideal is universal law applied by force. It is an ideal of conservative perfection at heart and it became an influence on Napoleonic and British imperialism, a driver for American perfectionism and empire and for Italian fascism but is also an 'at hand' for the increasingly frustrated European Project, even the West (as self-conscious political cause,) by which they could create an 'ideal' from which order might be imposed on fractious populations, Political Islam and Russia be resisted in their feared incursions (although Russia might equally be cast as Eastern Empire and the US as Western Empire to taste) and some accommodation be made with the dominant faith groups (a resolution devoutly wished for by the Vatican).

Strand Three - The Romance of Arthur

This might be considered peculiar to the British and lost now to the nineteenth century but it stands for something else that is derivative from Christianity yet exists not to be Christian first and foremost. It is a redirection of the inherent potential for warlordism and piracy in elites into social responsibility - the imperial version of corporate social responsibility. It is ideal behaviour as an aristocracy presented as 'service' (even if it is pretty flexible as to the question 'to whom' is the service owed). Today, we see it as an ideology of technocracy and managerialism where managers seek to assert their authority over what they see as anarchic social forces - whether finance capital or the mob. The ideal is romantic and is an irruption of the Roman past into, first, the medieval and then the modern present, first as restraint of feudalism, then as restraint on imperialism and now as restraint on capitalism. This the Western equivalent of mandarin confucianism. The 'to whom' is key - the Crown, the State, the Empire or the People. The vision is a form of liberal conservatism, a top-down granting of boons to the commonwealth, that could be useful if universal law is applied by force in the European Project since force requires an accompanying ideology of restraint. Or it could be used for the reconstruction of the power of a service elite following scandal after scandal in political, financial and bureaucratic elites in particular nation-states.

Strand Four - The Volkisch

Volkisch ideology invented history by intellectuals with time on their hands for the petit-bourgeoisie. It might be thought to have crashed in flames in the cellars and bunkers of mid-twentieth century Europe. Its origins lies in pre-Christian barbarian cultures and is at the root not only of neo-nationalism but of northern democracy. It has potential resonance three generations on from Hitlerism for two reasons - revisionist history can provide more rationale than liberals may like for the rise of nationalism as response to disorder in the 150 years before the conflagration and current conditions of hyper-modernity and multiculturalism almost require the existence of something to which those whose identity is threatened or who are economically disadvantaged can rally. What will emerge is unlikely to be precisely what existed in the past. It does not appear to be a very pan-European identity but more a populist identity based on language and place. It is thus in a dialectic tension with the first three strands.

Strand Five - Political Neo-Paganism

Neo-paganism is very much a minority sport, a clubbable business of small very liberal or hyper-conservative sub-sets of the population. The instinctive preference of most Europeans is Abrahamanic or secular. Although there is an association of Germanic and Nordic paganism with the Radical Right (although we should note that the murderous Breivik cast his violence in terms of Christian retribution and righteousness), the real contribution of neo-paganism is a withdrawal from politics into self-reliance and a theory of the 'natural', not the naturally pre-defined person (neo-pagans are as likely to adopt very fluid notions of identity as to follow the norms of Assatru) but of a natural world which provides us humans with meaning and order. If anything, this is a mode of resistance to social order and can present itself in terms of either the Right or the Left as traditionally understood. It tends to be passive rather than active but will engage in the world to protect, conservatively, its own - generally a locus or an 'environment' - from intervention. It is a proto-barbarian element in dialectic with the proto-Rome of the European Project.

Strand Six - The Shamanic

Finally we find ourselves in the lowest stratum of all. There may be a rich Eurasian shamanic tradition - the manipulative magician as community catalyst through altered states - but this has been culturally pushed to the periphery of the Continent. What has happened instead is an importation of indigenous peoples' shamanic experience through anthropology and the revived interest in psychedelics via the United States and it is this that has tapped into the oldest strata of all within the European cultural tradition. This is a culture of potential resistance to excessive order and, if you spend time observing it, one of withdrawal from elites and also a determination to defend place and person against authority much like Strand Five. It is anarchic but not in the destructive meaning of the term. It sits waiting to undermine fixed identities and beliefs through instant personal revelation and a direct communion with other realities - delusory perhaps but not much more so than the hyper-reality of post-modernism.

If we go back to Breivik, he looks, in his Christian political eschatology, more like the last brutal gasp of a decaying unified vision of Europe as a Christian Continent than the precursor of meaningful revolt. The Far Right (or at least an important faction of it and its populist element) is clinging to the Christian myth as political tool and to create a bulwark against the most significant 'other' - Islam - but they have lost the plot under conditions where a majority of Christians think in more socially liberal terms and where the most recent Pope has had to re-fashion his rhetoric in this liberal direction in order to hold on to his base.

Our model of contemporary Europe is of a flailing empire trying to maintain order with no clear authoritarian ideology to support it - beyond a sort of vaguely Kantian ideology of liberal rights and a collapsing 'peace' ethos driven from above by the elites themselves. There is no Cult of the Emperor, no belief in King and Country, no belief in the Dictatorship of the Proletariat than can push all rival political ideologies to the margins or into private life and even silence. Tolerance means maximal variation (which is creative but chaotic). This is what most of us rather like because it gives us the freedom to have a private life and yet to try to drive our world view into the political process by stealth and in a free competition within shared rules. But it also means that the political elite becomes an alien bureaucracy that looks weak and ineffective when it can do nothing or little about those who break or do not share the rules - just as the rule breakers are increasing in number.

There is no stasis in culture and politics. All systems that degrade like this either collapse (the European Project is undergoing an economic, security and political crisis all at the same time) or a crisis transforms the system into a new system with new rules and new structures of power - much as the Roman Republic transformed itself into the Roman Empire or the British Empire into a multicultural airstrip and banking quarter. We might oversimplify the strands we have identified into 'Roman' (that is Empire and Order) or 'Barbarian' (that is Freedom and Self-Determination) models by suggesting that the first three strands (a closed civics, universalism backed by force and the ideal of a service elite) are being challenged and contested by the last three (the politics of language and place, the defence of the individual and the tribe from authority and the primacy of personal revelation). The challenge and the contest will be, eventually, political involving some form of armed force either as repression or rebellion.

Judaeo-Christianity remains a formidable force for Order (as we are seeing in the return of the conservative Right in Spain) and is even hegemonic in some parts of Europe, notably Poland, but its power should not be assumed to be hegemonic across Europe. Even active Judaeo-Christian political forces can speak in secularist terms - such as in terms of support for or migration to Israel or defensive demands for protection from criminal Islamists. The Charlie Hebdo revolt was, we must not forget, about the right to be blasphemous as much as a populist negative revolt against the claims of radical Islam. This gives the European Union the character of the Roman Empire before Constantine - a fracturing culture maintained by a fractured political authority with the old religions no longer able to provide the necessary cohesion. If a cultural revolution takes place it is unlikely to come from the Vatican,. We cannot know what such a revolution will be if it does come but either an assertion of a European ideology of order, a sort of fascism-lite with added Kant, or an accommodation with radical liberal, tribal and even libertarian populism seem to be the current probable trajectories. We'll see.