Acid fascism: Past and present ties between occultism and the far right
“Lift the veil” implores the wellness guru Krystal Tini. ‘Get off of your knees and release yourself from your mental shackles.” Once a space for yoga poses and advice about toxins, Tini’s Instagram now offers a disturbing blend of self-help, baseless conspiracy and proto-fascist incitement. “What mark do you want to leave in this world?? A weak one that lacks color? Or do you want the world to be stained with your name, your bravery, and your heroic tale?” “You either LEAD or you follow!” Many such pronouncements—didactic as well as mystical, ranging from the cowardliness of mask wearers to the end of “free speech”—have turned Tini into one of the new age community’s most influential conspiracists. In Tini’s world, self-branding blurs into far-right PR and inspirational quotes segue into paranoid rants. Airy pronouncements about peace, love and truth nestle among statements like this: “come for our kids and you will be met with wrath and fury”.
Her words allude to QAnon, a conspiracy theory whose followers believe a paedophilic cabal of senior Democrats, Hollywood stars and billionaires run the world and harvest a life-giving chemical from the blood of abused children. The children are always ‘America’s children’ or ‘Britain’s children’, the purest, most innocent expression of the mystical Volk and a blatant reference to the ‘Christian children’ of the Blood Libel. Like past anti-Semitic conspiracies, QAnon and its associated strands transform sensations of impotence in the face of a catastrophic system into resentment of a fantasy elite, who have impaired reality to such a degree that only a strongman can now save us. QAnon promises, according to one adherent, a “reverse rapture”, ushered in, no less, by corporate messiah Donald Trump. Prophesied as the instigator of the ‘storm’ – a day of reckoning when members of the cabal will be rounded up and brought to trial – Trump’s central role reveals QAnon’s overtly fascistic aspirations. In the figure of the former president, its followers have found a willing hero. As President, Trump repeatedly made references to the ‘Deep state’ and even claimed QAnon’s followers “believe in good government”. His departure from office has only seen the movement grow and adapt, gaining further ground among the highest ranks of the Republican Party.
Despite the growing evidence, commentators have struggled to fathom QAnon’s popularity among wellness and new age communities. Holding tight to a vision of holistic healing, astrology and crystal peering as unequivocally benign pursuits, they have voiced continual surprise at the new age community’s drift into paranoia and hatred, with articles such as ‘QAnon’s Unexpected Roots in New Age Spirituality’ and ‘Meet the QAnon Shaman behind the horns at the Capitol insurrection’.
The storming of the Capitol on January 6th proved a particularly unsettling event. In the days that followed, images circulated of a bare-chested man, resplendent in viking horns and Nordic tattoos. The man in question was later identified as Jake Angeli, a far-right activist from Arizona and familiar face at Trump rallies. Angeli describes himself as the “QAnon shaman”, a "multi-dimensional or hyper dimensional being" who can "see into these other higher dimensions that these entities - these paedophiles, these rapists, these really high up people ... that they can almost hide in the shadows in." This proved too much for liberal pundits, who came out in droves to make the same bland argument: the far right is not supposed to look like this. Seemingly more shocked by Angeli’s neo-pagan aesthetic than the insurrection itself, the major organs of social commentary obsessed over his far-out attire and self-confessed use of psychedelics. The focus of such articles tends to remain at the level of aesthetics. The far-right is supposed to be a gang of testosterone-jacked skinheads. New agers and spiritualists are not supposed to believe that a satan-worshipping cabal is trafficking children and drinking their blood.
Contrary to the commentariat’s shock at the shamanic practices of QAnon believers, connections between occultist and fascist belief systems are well dounded. Many such beliefs were central to the European spiritual movements in the early twentieth century. Like today, the period saw new age charlatans flourish by selling creeds of absolution and purification, as trust in democracy foundered amid imperialist war and financial mayhem. The historian, Nicholas Goodrick-Clark sums up the mood of the period as the ‘netherworld of fantasy’, in which progress came to seem a lie and many people rejected Enlightenment ideals, favouring the false sanctuaries of occultism, astrology and divination. These seemingly benign practises proved to be a crucible of Aryan and Volkisch ideology, leading eventually to what historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke describes as the ‘ultimate dreamworld of the Third Reich’.
At the vanguard of Europe’s new age were the Ariosophists, a spiritualist movement originating in the writings of occultists Guido von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. Both writers came of age at the end of the nineteenth century, when rapid demographic and geographical change in the region helped to forge the pan-German movement, which sought to cohere all German speaking people into a single ethno-nationalist state. The Ariosophists justified these ambitions through tracts that offered spiritual weight to ideas of German superiority. Combining anti-Semitic conspiracy with mystic visions of the Volk, they prophesied an era of Germanic global domination, which would return the modern world to a golden age when gnostic priesthoods ruled over a racially pure social order. These glorious übermensch would vanquish the conspiratorial interests of Jews – a phony elite – which had thrown humanity into a new dark age of false progress and barbaric liberalism. It was this Jewish conspiracy, the Ariosophists claimed, behind the economic misery and political uncertainty that threatened the livelihoods and, indeed, the very existence of the German people.
The esoteric underpinnings of the Ariosophists drew on the ideas of arch-occultist Helena Blavatsky, a Russian adventurer who claimed powers of clairvoyance and telepathy. Often regarded as the mother of new age thought, Blavatsky’s ragtag sophistry of Ancient mythology, Egyptian folklore, Gnosticism and occult ritual has offered a blueprint for the motley musings of many a new age spiritualist since. She popularised the fable of a superior Aryan race, stretching back to Hyperborea, the mythical homeland of the far Northern people. Her anti-enlightenment screeds seem to be precisely what Umberto Eco had in mind when describing “ur-fascism” as a kind of “irrationalism”, “nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic and occultist elements”, dangerously “obsessed with a plot”. Eco did not go so far as to argue that new age thought inevitably leads to fascism, but suggested that the views share a set of common dispositions. Most obviously, the Gnostic promise of belonging to a special elite that has pierced the illusion of the everyday and accessed secret truths. There are many variations on this trope: the evangelical call of the online conspiracist to ‘Do your own research!’; the lockdown protestor’s ‘Wake up!’; or the alt-right’s ‘red pill’, which references Neo’s gnostic awakening in the Hollywood film The Matrix. “You take the blue pill, the story ends”, Morpheus tells him. “You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes”.
Theodor Adorno famously described occultism as ‘the metaphysic of dunces’. Occultism and fascism appeal to a ‘consciousness famished for truth’, he wrote, which ‘imagines it is grasping a dimly present knowledge diligently denied to it by official progress in all its forms. It is the knowledge that society, by virtually excluding the possibility of spontaneous change, is gravitating toward total catastrophe’. The conspiracist likewise believes they have gleaned a catastrophic truth, unsanctioned by the powers that be. In the case of QAnon, the catastrophe contains its own solution. The real sources of alienation are denied, supplanted by romantic images of Donald Trump conquering the evil elite and making America great again.
Such notions of millenarian triumph were central to the Thule Society, one of the occultist groups Adorno undoubtedly loathed and a precursor to the Nazi Party. The group obsessively read the future in ancient runes and fetishized the Ar symbol, which denoted the rebirth of Germanic society. ‘Thule’ was said to be a lost civilization, originating in Hyperborea, destined to rise again in the time of the Nazis. As with today’s new age authoritarians, critics have tended to fetishize the society for its rank weirdness, undeterred by the obvious fact that strangeness was wielded in the name of normativity. Occultism was merely the path to ethnonationalist superiority, cosmic violence to earthly tradition. Its romantic visions of Germanic harmony, stretching back to some perfect dawn, then toward a glorious, knowable future, offered solace but of a dismal and dangerous sort. Today’s far-right mystics similarly find sanctuary in a mythic yesterday. Comfort resides in a phantom past – a great America – destined to someday, somehow, become a radiant tomorrow, where fantastical Muslim grooming gangs and Jewish lizard people have been vanquished to Guantanamo bay or some other such place suited to fantasies of revenge.
Of all the racist quacks to experience a modern renaissance, the most influential is Italian mystic Julius Evola, whose omnipresence in the halcyon days of the alt-right became a pundit shorthand for a new breed of fascist intellectual. Emboldened by Trump’s election as president in 2016, prominent alt-right activists were able to reference with impunity a figure recognised as central to Italian fascism. The white supremacist, Richard Spencer described Evola as “one of the most fascinating men of the twentieth-century”. The chief strategist of former President Trump, Steve Bannon, name-dropped the philosopher in a speech to the Vatican, advancing the ‘new dark age’ thesis key to Evola’s most revered of ideas: ‘traditionalism’. Characterised by Indo-Aryan tenets of caste and supreme state rule, this esoteric brand of authoritarianism has since been used by far-right terrorists to lend an air of sophistication to violent ideals.
Evola’s influence on today’s far-right is most evident in his 1934 work Revolt Against the Modern World, a kind of manifesto for traditionalism. The book traces myths relating to the Arctic origin of the Aryan race through ancient Indian, Iranian and Greek texts, drawing heavily on the Hindu cycle of the ages, equating modernity with the dark age or Kali Kuga, in which society is corrupt and tradition is dead. Evola despised the secular, cosmopolitan and liberal concerns of the modern world. He scorned capitalism and socialism in equal measure as corruptions of man’s project of ‘self-transcendence’ – in short, a violent, millenarian return to a world of regal authority, chivalry and rigid caste hierarchy.
The most remarkable and enduring of Evola’s ideas, called razzismo dello spirito or racism of the spirit, conferred upon Jewry a metaphysical evil The idea seeped into the Nazi party, and undoubtedly was an influence on Adolf Hitler’s treatment of Jews. Today, transcendental anti-Semitism has found a new audience of zealots through publishers such as Arktos Media, who have recently rerun a number of Evola’s texts. Most notably, the idea appears in Evola’s much-read introduction to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion — the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory behind QAnon, though first published in 1903 — in which he concedes the dubious origins of the text but nonetheless holds up its arguments as metaphysical truths. In his telling, Jewry is a cosmic force for evil, an ineffable archetype existing behind all social ill. It is omnipotent and omnipresent but also, somehow, weak and nomadic – a cowardly citizen of nowhere. One can see why such metaphysical certainty – argued by Evola with the zeal of a true doctrinaire – holds appeal for angry white men at a time when their privilege is threatened by progressive cultural forces and regressive economic ones. His thinking may appear indecisive and feeble, but these traits disguise a sturdy fatalism, which reflects the essentialism it appears to reject.
These ideas turned out to be premonitions of Nazi political terror, the ghettos and, ultimately, the mass murder of the Holocaust. Mystics, of course, cannot see the future. But they can, like other political actors, will it into being with their ideas and actions. In the writings of figures such as Blavatsky, spiritual fixes to an impoverished inner life readily merged with deathly fantasies about “who” was ruining the outer world. The same sleights of hand are rife among a new crop of mystics that hawk their ideas on social media. Questions about truth become musings on an elite cabal; ‘toxins’ offer a ready metaphor for immigrants, and followers are urged to become “spiritual leaders”. The purveyors of these ideas promise a gnostic awakening, the ability to transcend an unsatisfying existence of ignorance and misery. But in the calls to ‘wake up’, ‘lift the veil’ and ‘do your research’ can be heard the echoes of a great calamity.
Phil Jones is a freelance writer and a researcher for the think tank Autonomy. His book Work Without the Worker is out with Verso in October.