The Totalitarian Potential of New Age Spirituality

In this series of what we can learn from the totalitarian ideologies (for communism click here, and for fascism click here), I’d wish things would get less demonic around this time and that I could point to a cuter and happier ending when we get to New Age spirit­uality. But alas, as the human (or post-human) condition progresses, it only gets more wondrous, complex, per­ilous and terrifying, all at once. As Leon Trotsky once said “The forms of life will become dyn­am­ically dramatic […] And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” He just for­got to mention the new opening abyss between us and the peaks. Higher emancipation, incidentally, is found on the very edge of doom.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. 

For many readers, no doubt, “New Age” seems to be the odd one out in a series about the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. Commun­ism, fascism, and… New Age? These phenomena aren’t usually discuss­ed in the same context. And yet, there is a clear and fundamental pattern conn­ecting the three; even a logical, historical progression (as well as more inter­connecting ties and overlaps than we could name or hope to trace).

The three ideologies appeared and gained prominence in sequence as modern society pro­gress­ed, each of them related to holistic visions, and each of them led to totalitarian, abusive and collapsed societies. Commun­ism rel­ates to a profound social equality and union between humans, to the abol­ition of the “shame-regime” as discussed in my book Nordic Ideology (since no one would have lower status in the communist utopia). Fascism builds upon the com­m­unist radical unity and the rise of certain strong wills and great figures in that unified society and a conscious refinement of huma­nity, corres­ponding to the abolition of the Sklavenmoral-regime. And the New Age move­ments aimed at creating a reign of universal love flowing from a genuinely unified and deeply emancipated hum­anity, uni­fying us not only with one another, but with the cosmos at large, with all life, and with our highest inner potentials—in Hanzi lan­guage, with our “highest subjective states” and “greatest inner depths”. Like commun­ism, New Age spirituality is utopian and egalitarian, like fascism it em­phasizes the dist­inctions between the genders as well as the value of authenti­city and full­ness of commitment and of total submission of the ego and disso­lution into a complete unity. This corresponds to the “higher reaches of free­dom” per­taining to the later stages of human development, to the deepest reaches of our imaginations and the most universalistic and holis­tic visi­ons of soc­iety and humanity.

Because of its developmental qualities, reaching higher and deeper than commun­ism and fascism, New Age holds the potential for a more hellish, oppressive and suffocating totalitarianism than anything hith­er­to seen in communist and fascist societies. Luckily for us, no utopian New Age mov­e­ments really gained power in the 20th century—their social sust­ainability was simply too low to grow beyond small communities and inward-looking cults. The exception may be Scientology, which turned itself into a self-sustaining market mechanism using psychological coer­cion to get peop­le to aggressively pool money into real estate around the world, which in turn boasts the identities of members (“look at my big temple”) who then gain incentives to uphold the structure.

The close connection between fascism and say Adi Da’s cult, or that of Osho, or Scientology, may be difficult to spot on a surface level. After all, fascists are tough and manly, and New Agers soft and spiritual. But many scholars have shown that fascism—new and old—is full to the brim with esoteric and spiritual underpinnings. Karla Poewe, Pankaj Mishra and Göran Dahl are worth mentioning in this context.

Viewed with the goggles of my own theory, this is the develop­mental imbalance of “the magic residual” at work, as explained in The Listening Society; i.e. people who have greater depth and/or state than complexity and/or code tend to seek wholeness and be drawn to the non-rational in the search of the trans­rational. In other words, you have a pervasive sense there is som­ething more to the world and to reality than we can normally describe and grasp with our conscious conceptual minds, and that the direct expe­rience of reality always points towards something larger than any specific struc­ture of thought, but that something requires that we jump off a cliff into the unknown, that we stop thinking and allow ourselves to “fully be”.

This impulse, while true, opens the door inside of us for a holistic vis­ion that would unite all of society with primary, archetypal and spiritual forces: Martin Heidegger initially supported the Nazis and Carl Jung had early writings which spoke of collective Aryan and Jewish psyches, and count­less other “deep stuff” thinkers have fallen into similar traps. There is a very close connection between fascism and the New Age, most recent­ly revealed per­haps by the harrowing example of Andrew Cohen’s cult.

Why then would I claim that New Age has the potential to be even more hellish than Gulag or Holocaust? Think about it: These relations involve your innermost ontological belief structures. They can make you believe that if you don’t follow suit, if you even think the wrong thought, you will be punished for a literal eternity of unbearable suffering. And they can make you believe that in full and earnest. That’s much, much more radical than making you think you’re a bad comrade or not a part of the master race. And they can make you believe that the fate of the entire cosmos, literally speaking, depends on your work with this and that inner purifica­tion, enlightenment, etc. And they can make you believe this or that person is literally God speaking and that nothing else has any relevan­ce compared to what they may be saying. And they can make you inti­mately feel that with every cell of your body and soul. It’s the Michelin Star Club of totalitarianism. It’s totalitarianism magna cum laude, extra everything; ketchup and mustard. Because it reaches into the depths of your soul and controls parts of you neither Stalin nor Hitler could reach. In theory, then, what crimes could that sort of power make you commit? And if you were invested in it, what would you be prepared to do to defend it from perceived attackers?

If you consider the stories told by some escapees of North Korea, you notice this pattern. This is a nominally communist country, which all but in name has transitioned to a caste-like hyper-militarized fascist society, and where you increasingly see the use of supernatural narratives to legiti­mize pol­itical pow­er. Miracles are associated with the Supreme Leader, and it can take years for a young woman who escaped to get rid of the belief that he is reading her mind. That, if anything, is worse that Orwell’s 1984. And it’s pretty close to what has been reported by ex-Scientologists. If Sciento­logy would have managed to take over society as a whole, you might have seen similar patt­erns emerging in other countries or at a larger scale.

And then there’s always that distinct trait of totalitarianism: First you have a creative burst for a period in which the arts flower, then you con­verge around a massive repetition, a complete shut-down of all art. Scien­tology looks and feels exactly the same today as it did in the 1970s, except now in an ironic and more critically minded age, it all looks extremely kitschy and hysteri­cal. The same is true of North Korea: There are paint­ers, sure, but their skills are entirely tamed and employed on a producti­on-line basis, all in credit of the regime and its worldview. The same happened with nazism during its very short period of existence and with the “per­manent revolu­tion” in some commun­ist countries. If someone gets to you with the idea that they have a correct grasp of “the totality”, any divergence, even in your dreams, becomes a subject of great existen­tial terror. This adds another, and more terrifying, layer of mean­­ing to Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face—for ever”. Personally, I would rather be gas­sed to death naked than to have someone convince me of an eternity of suffering for me and others if I don’t obey. Spiritual involve­ment opens the door to a whole new world of horrors.

And yet, it would be wrong to think that universal love and high­er inner states have no place in the future of humanity. Again, it’s a matter of developmental imbalances; the spiritual and existential insights that infor­m­ed and energized the New Age movement in its many forms, and the pro­found and authentic experiences that gave it life, are not in them­selves false. They’re simply too big and too difficult to manage to fit into what­ever human relationships, social roles and symbolic universes we con­struct, and so these relation­ships and roles always self-destruct pretty soon after we start engaging with the highest (spiritual) subjective states.

As society progresses and we reach deeper into ourselves in order to deal with the existential underpinnings of civilization as well as coordi­nating our streams-of-action on subtler and more complex levels, we are bound to come face to face again with these spiritual or cosmic peaks and abysses. Individually, many of us can ignore these issues and live “normal lives” and not be bothered, but transpersonally speaking, we as a global society and emerging posthumans cannot avoid it. We are going to have to deal with the terrifying depths and towering heights of existence, with the vast oceans of being, with the eternities of tragedy and suffering and the unbearable infinity of potential—sooner or later.

If the present world-system survives and development continues to accelerate, consciousness is very likely to self-organize into posthuman stages mirroring the great existential depths intuited by the mystics. The New Age movements have given us a brief taste of these farther land­scapes of the soul, of the peaks—and the great abyss.

The abyss. We then, collectively and transpersonally, encounter a more profound terror than has hitherto been experienced; a terror intuited only in madness and bad psychedelic trips. A terror beyond death: an experi­enced eternity of looped suffering. There is a towering challenge ahead of us; beyond anything yet experienced in the history of the known universe. The scale is of a whole other magnitude, the stakes of a cosmic kind. Sheer terror, pure emptiness—and a corres­ponding level of evil, always found, ultimately, within ourselves. The highest good—universal love and accep­tance—can only be attained by facing the greatest and purest of evils. Although this challenge lies outside the scope of the political metamoder­nism I have formulated, the latter can at least commence the needed pre­paratory work for this unavoidable challenge to our innermost being. Only an existentially mature civilization will be able to face the surmount­ing terror.

You cannot gaze into the abyss without being moved. You cannot taste the heavens without becoming, at least in some abstract sense, a believer. And that’s what political metamodernism shares with the New Age: an acceptance of the highest subjective states, their ultimate significance and transrational truth; that of universal love and acceptance, the dissol­ution of our separate identifications, and the non-attachment to ideas and beli­efs. In brief moments, these higher potentials can animate us, “As spring sweeps uninvited into barren gardens, as morning breezes reinvigorate dormant deserts”, as one of the most celebrated poets of the Urdu langu­age, Faiz Ahmed Faiz once wrote.[i]

These flowers of freshest hue must be met by an unequivocal commit­ment to deal with a corresponding level of existential terror. Unlike the New Ager, the metamodern mind is not a millenari­an one; we don’t bel­ieve that a wave of light will “come soon” and “wash over” all of us and this will make people “wake up” and that we are the carriers of that evan­gel (or some circumscription of the latter). We just recognize that there is such a thing as spirituality, yes, and we allow for faint glimmers of it to hint us about a potential future that is both incom­prehensively mag­nifi­cent and terrifying beyond imagination.

We do, however, share the idea that inner transformation is an import­ant and essential part of societal transformation, and ultimately of socie­ty’s sur­vival. And we share the idea that self-knowledge tends to lead to greater universalism and love, however tortuous and difficult the path. And we believe this path is not laid down, but that it must be conti­nually paved and rediscovered as we interact with the open systems of the world as these open systems inevitably also change us.

Here we return to the metamodern idea of proto-synthesis—we can­not just throw all maps of meaning and directionality overboard. We must see that spiritual insight and higher universal love are powerful futu­re attract­ors, but that they reside in the posthuman or transhuman realm of poten­tials, which means that we shouldn’t rush it. In this case, we must remain careful and conservative, as the sheer terror that can be unleashed under the auspices of a “metamodern totalitar­ianism” leaves a heavy ethical bur­den on us. Imagine a world where dictators control your soul and the con­struction of your social universe and have a thousand social, psycho­logical, chemical and technological tools to control the structure of your mind. That would be beyond nasty.

Where does this leave us? At the spot where political meta­modernism seeks to carefully work for the relative utopia of a listening society—a soc­iety that has resolved the modern problems of sustainabi­lity, inequality and alienation; but it must always stop before any direct, pass­ionate and non-ironic utopianism.

So fundamentally, whether political metamodernism becomes a force for good or evil in the world—or just another obscure cult-like group­ing—depends upon our shared ability to manage paradoxes and both-ands. And it depends upon our willingness and capacity to engage with the open systems of the world, and letting these systems change us, while still keeping some kind of shared map.

It is okay to let glimmers of New Age spirituality—and traditional paths in general—inform and inspire us. They must, however, never go­vern us, lest we will inherit all their pathologies, albeit in a magnified and yet more toxic version. These are dangerous dreams.

Political metamodernism is a bit like standing on the North Pole; if you go far enough north, so that you actually stand on the exact location of the North Pole, east and west and north all disappear; on that particular spot there is only south—in all directions. When you get really close to it, all directions become the opposite of what you want to achieve, and yet you have to keep trying to go “north of the North Pole”.

There’s a koan to stay with: What is north of the North Pole?

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

[i]. From the poem Last Night, loose translation by Michael R. Burch.