The Shadow of our Downfall

The problem of the monkey trap, the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post, is already a potent factor in contemporary society. Watch the way that pundits and politicians keep trying to solve today’s crises with yesterday’s solutions, no matter how counterproductive the results, and it’s hard not to see a reflection of the poor monkey trying to get its hand out of the trap without letting go of the food that keeps it stuck there. When you realize that you’re in a hole, a popular slogan says, the first thing to do is stop digging. Still, this is easy to say but a good deal harder to put into practice, especially when digging has been so successful and profitable for so long that it’s the only thing you really know how to do any more.

Yet the monkey trap fastened to the hand of modern industrial society has implications not often grasped, and it’s one of those I want to address this week. As with some of the other topics I’ve explored here, it’s best to come at this one in a roundabout way, and so we’ll begin from an unlikely starting point and talk a bit about the history of the New Age movement. It’s common for people who hope to be taken seriously in the wider community to roll their eyes when the New Age or any of the movements of thought associated with it come up for discussion. This fashionable scorn, though, misses the chance to watch a crucial barometer of social trends. In any civilization, it’s the cults, fads, and passions of the fringe that point out roads that the rest of society will presently take.

If some prescient Roman scholar of the reign of Nero or Claudius, say, wanted to catch some whisper of the world that would supplant his own, he’d have been wasting his time to listen to speeches in the Forum or lectures in the fashionable academies of the day. He would have had to search out the cultural underbelly of his age, where strange cults from distant lands bid for the loyalties of those long since alienated from the worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The Middle Ages already existed there in larval form, long before anyone in Rome had ever heard of Goths or Huns, or thought of Jesus of Nazareth, if at all, as anything but a footnote in the history of a minor province somewhere back east.

Now the New Age movement is unlikely to become for the coming deindustrial age what Christianity became during and after Rome’s catabolic collapse. If it had an equivalent in the classical scene, it was the Gnostic movement – like the New Age, a diffuse and wildly diverse phenomenon popular among the privileged classes of its time, and reflecting those classes’ attitudes and interests far too closely to survive the collapse of the society that gave them their status. Gnosticism’s Achilles heel was its intense spiritual elitism -- its rigid distinction between the few who had the capacity for gnosis (redeeming knowledge) and the many who did not. The New Age movement formulates its notions of privilege in a different way...and therein lies a tale.

The New Age movement had unprepossessing beginnings. To begin with, there was never that much new about it. Nearly all its ingredients were first assembled by the Spiritualist movement of the mid-19th century: channelling (they called it “mediumship” back then), alternative health systems, positive-thinking psychology, an intense reverence for Asian spiritual wisdom that never quite stooped to learn much about the actual teachings of the East, and all the rest. By the 1970s, when the New Age movement began to coalesce, this package was the common property of a dizzying range of alternative spiritualities in the Western world, including a network of people in Britain and America who believed they were receiving messages from flying saucers.

One of the commonplaces of these communications was the claim that the Space Brothers were about to land en masse and usher in a new age of peace, brotherhood, and spiritual awakening. Claims of this sort have a long history, of course, and the contactee community made the trip from grand announcements of imminent First Contact to embarrassed excuses for the saucers’ failure to appear with even more than the usual frequency; one of the classics of modern sociology, When Prophecy Fails, focuses on a prime example from the 1950s. After repeated disappointments, though, several members of the contactee community came up with a novel response – the proposal that believers should live their lives in the ordinary world as if the new age had already arrived. By making the prophesied great change a reality in their own lives here and now, they hoped to catalyze it in the world as a whole.

It’s a brilliant strategy, for more reasons than one. To begin with, of course, making changes in your own life is the necessary first step toward making them at any other level of human society; Gandhi’s comment “You must be the change you hope to see in the world” is as much a guide to effective tactics as anything else. Yet there’s more going on here than clever politics; another factor at work is a very old but very potent technique for shaping consciousness. Put the ideal and the real cheek by jowl and learn to live with the cognitive dissonance between them, and the paradox itself can become a source of creativity and insight. It’s a core technique in the toolkit of initiatory schools since ancient times. Whether the original New Age communities got the idea from that source, or stumbled across it on their own, it quickly caught fire and spread across alternative scenes throughout the industrial world.

The strategy of paradox has a vulnerability, though. It’s all too easy to lose track of the “as if,” the gap between the ideal world and the real one where creative paradox lives, and start believing that the ideal world is the one that actually exists. That way lies the futile heroics of Don Quixote, who maps the ideal world of chivalric romance onto the prosaic realities of the Spanish countryside with such abandon that he tries to assault windmills under the delusion that they’re wicked giants. Of course the windmills fail to play their assigned parts in the romance, and clobber him. Something similar happened to the New Age movement as it became less visionary and more marketable, and the subtle discipline of “live as though you’re creating the reality you experience” got dumbed down into “you create the reality you experience.”

Now of course each of us does play a part in creating the reality we experience, and subtle factors such as expectations and assumptions have a much more powerful role in that than most people realize. The old initiatory schools used to teach simple tricks for working with those latter early in their training programs, to give neophytes the confidence to tackle the much subtler and more demanding work ahead of them. As the New Age movement gained members and lost focus, though, gimmicks of this sort became the basis for a philosophy of cosmic consumerism that claims the universe is supposedly set up to give people whatever they happen to want, so long as they ask for it in the right way.

It’s a very popular viewpoint, especially among the privileged middle classes of the industrial world, who are used to getting pretty much whatever they want anyway. It also sells exceedingly well, as its latest rehash – the current book and video phenomenon titled The Secret – shows clearly enough. The problem is that beyond a certain point, it doesn’t work in practice. You can try as hard as you like to convince yourself that the universe wants to give you whatever you want to get, but that doesn’t mean you will get it. At that point, the monkey trap closes tight around your hand, because the ideology you’ve embraced tells you that you have to believe completely in it to make it work, and so any awareness that it’s not working gets shoved aside as an obstacle to success.

Responses to this predicament in the New Age scene have covered the entire range of monkey antics, but one in particular bears noticing. In recent years, large sections of the New Age movement have become passionate supporters of conspiracy theories. David Icke’s bizarre Reptilian theory, which claims that all the world’s political, economic, and cultural leaders are actually evil lizards from another planet, is only one of many popular flavors of New Age paranoia these days. Older and potentially more dangerous theories have also begun to surface; it’s not precisely a comforting sign that Icke and several other New Age conspiracy gurus have reprinted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the hoary anti-Semitic forgery that helped inspire National Socialism, in their books.

Why this shift from visionary mysticism to paranoiac conspiracy culture? Psychologist Carl Jung offers a key to understanding in his discussion of “projecting the shadow.” The shadow, in Jung’s theory, is the sum total of everything we don’t accept about ourselves. We try any number of psychological tricks to keep from becoming aware of our shadows, but one of the standard methods is to project it onto someone else. Instead of owning up to the fact that we have characteristics we claim to despise, we see those characteristics in them – whether “them” is an ethnic group, a religious community, a political party, or what have you. The more intense our hypocrisy, the more forcefully we project our own negative characteristics on somebody else, and the more savagely we hate them for it.

This is exactly what’s going on in large parts of the New Age community today, with a twist. The shadow of the New Age is the reality of limitation – the hard fact that you can’t always get what you want, no matter how much you want it. Projecting that shadow is one effective way to deal with it, and conspiracy theories allow the faithful to project the shadow of their failure onto a fantasy of ultimate evil. In David Icke’s theories, for example, the Reptilians aren’t just to blame for everything wrong with the world, they deliberately created and maintain the “illusion” of a material reality with real, inflexible limits. Thus believers in Icke’s worldview can maintain their faith in their ability to create their own reality; if it doesn’t work in practice, that’s because the space lizards are slithering around behind the scenes messing things up.

Now all this may seem to have little to do with the themes of peak oil and catabolic collapse that have taken up so much space in this blog, but there’s a direct connection. The myth of progress, like the belief that everyone creates their own reality, raises expectations that the real world – especially in an age of diminishing resources – simply isn’t able to meet. As the gap between expectation and experience grows, so, too, does the potential for paranoia and hatred. Those who cling to faith in progress are too likely to go looking for scapegoats when the future fails to deliver the better world they expect. The explosive rise of a politics of rage on all sides of the political continuum, especially but not only in the US, suggests that this process may be well under way already. As finger-pointing and shouted insults drown out reasoned political dialogue, it seems to me, the real target for the fingers and shouts on all sides may be the projected shadow of the industrial world’s approaching downfall.

That bodes very ill indeed for any large-scale constructive response to the predicament before us. What might be done in the face of this prospect will take up the next several posts on this blog.