CULTURE wars and alternative facts have become the battleground of modern politics – or at least they have for some on the right of the political spectrum. It is often said that the problem with the Left is that it still thinks that political thinking is still about, well, politics, while the Right has shifted to culture. It’s not that they are simply on different sides – they are on different playing fields. We all know about the phenomenon of ‘alternative facts’ and the so-called ‘post-truth era’, but is this more than just a political strategy by the Right in order to gain power? According to Benjamin R. Teitelbaum there is much more.
Teitelbaum is a Professor of ethnography at the University of Colorado, but he is also an award-winning expert on the radical right. His new book War for Eternity focuses on an obscure philosophical movement called Traditionalism. It would probably have remained in obscurity had it not been adopted by people in real power, or at least those who have at one time or another attracted the attention of those in power – people like Steve Bannon and advisors to Putin and Bolsonaro. Teitelbaum has been studying Traditionalism for years and argues that it underpins the intellectual justification of much of the populist right, including Nigel Farage. According to Teitelbaum Traditionalists set themselves against modernity – that is, they are opposed to modern secularism, socialism – even capitalism – and universal values like human rights, all of which they see as illegitimate forces working to replace their preferred social, cultural and political hierarchies.
Teitelbaum writes: “Traditionalists follow Hinduism in believing that human history has always cycled through four distinct ages from a gold age to a silver to bronze and to the dark before moving back to gold and starting the cycle again.” Each age belongs to a particular type of person descending from a priestly or spiritual class (gold), down through warrior (silver), merchant (bronze) and, finally the slavery of the dark age.
There are variations in the structure of this hierarchy but all Traditionalists believe that we are currently in the dark ages and, while Hinduism says that this cycle can take millions of years to complete, they believe that it can take place over a much shorter, human timescale. There is a a certain fatalism in all of this, of course, but Traditionalists believe that one can accelerate the decay of the dark ages in order to return to the golden age all the sooner. It is in this context that phrases like ‘creative destruction’ and ‘make America great again’ gain a new resonance.
One of Traditionalism’s leading thinkers is the Italian Julius Evola, who added a layer of cultural bigotry with ‘whiter, Aryan people constituting a historical ideal atop those with darker skins – Semites, Africans, and other non-Aryans’. Chillingly, he saw tyrants like Hitler and Mussolini as a kind of destructive ‘readjustment’. And Bannon saw Trump as a destructive force, hastening the end of the dark ages (the fact that Trump saw himself as a builder may have contributed to the rift between them).
Fundamentally, Traditionalists are opposed to the very idea of progress while cyclical time gives them the intellectual cover for this view because the concept ‘recognises no past, present, or future’.
Teitelbaum writes: “Those attuned to cyclic time do not attempt to progress toward a a previously unrealized state of virtue, condemning the present and the past in the process.” Further: “The cycle also entails a motion from the central core, away to its edges, and back again – centripetal and centrifugal. It entails movement of departure from the illusion of time and progress, and movement of return back towards the core of eternal truth, on and on.”
Teitelbaum argues that one of the most disturbing aspects of Traditionalism – apart from questions about the truth of cyclic time as such and, in particular its Hindu manifestation- is not its cultural bigotry, which some adherents don’t agree with anyway, but the idea that we can never make progress. The fact that we no longer hang, draw or quarter people or legalize profit from enslaving people is irrelevant. What’s important is a return to the golden age of spirituality, even if that entails a return to barbaric practices and enslavement. Indeed, the very notion of slavery has been turned on its head so that we in our Western ‘modernity’ are not actually free but enslaved by materialism and consumerism. In fact, some of their concerns about what some call the psycho-politics of Big Data and neoliberalism does have some resonance . Those on the Left, however, are more likely to seek ways of countering the wilful ignorance that goes hand-in-hand with psycho-politics in an attempt to encourage more critically aware and engaged citizens; while Traditionalists are more likely to see psycho-politics as a welcome sign of the degeneration of the dark ages on the way to spiritual renewal.
For some this choice is no real choice at all because they will find nothing intellectually attractive about Traditionalism, but in so far as it is important to know how at least some quite influential people think, then Teitelbaum has done us all a favour.