Image via Steve Bannon, Wikimedia Commons

If (the American media) knew I had a meeting with Dugin, literally it would be front page of the Washington Post. It’s “Bannon’s a traitor,” and they’d go nuts.
— Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon spoke these words to author Benjamin Teitelbaum in reference to the stunning revelation he had offered Teitelbaum that he had met with Russian neofascist ideologue and general maniac Aleksandr Dugin for eight hours in a fancy hotel room in Rome in November 2018. This extraordinary scoop was first reported in Teitelbaum’s 2020 book War for Eternity and formed the dramatic centrepiece of the book.¹ Teitelbaum also reported Bannon saying to Dugin when they first met, “Can you imagine what Washington would think?”

But there was no reaction to this bombshell piece of news. Only in the Teitelbaum book was the significance of this meeting properly appreciated. The real mystery is why Bannon, knowing the sizable uproar that it could have provoked, was nonetheless willing to spill the beans to Teitelbaum about his secret rendezvous with Dugin.

Dugin was recently in the media spotlight when someone – we will never know who – tried to assassinate him and instead dispatched his equally nefarious daughter, Darya Dugina. The Russian FSB lost no time in trying to pin the sensational murder on a couple of Ukrainians, but as journalist Masha Gessen helpfully explained in the New Yorker, the FSB was in all probability seeking to divert attention from its own involvement:

Anyone who has crossed Russian land borders knows that getting in and out in a car is usually a long, involved process. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that a Ukrainian citizen slipped in or out with fake license plates. Also, the FSB has never been known to solve a political murder in a couple of days – or, really, at all.²

Dugin’s fascism is beyond dispute, although he tries to obscure it by claiming that his ideology is a so-called “fourth political theory” supposedly transcending the dominant 20th-century ideologies of liberalism, communism and fascism. As leading Dugin scholars such as Marlene Laruelle, Andreas Umland and Anton Shekhovtsov have thoroughly documented, this supposed “fourth” political theory is simply a smokescreen for empire-lusting Russian fascism, such as we are seeing played out in Vladimir Putin’s genocidal aggression against Ukraine.³

In an article in Inroads in 2015, I sketched some of the more alarming aspects of Dugin’s ideological lunacy.⁴ Relevant here is that Dugin makes no secret of the fact that one of his intellectual heroes is Julius Evola (1898–1974), who is one of Bannon’s heroes as well, as the Teitelbaum book makes clear. One of the first works of the young Dugin was a Russian translation of a book by Evola, who helped inspire far-right terrorism in Italy during the so-called Years of Lead (1968–88).

Evola was critical of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, but only because he found it too plebeian. More to his taste was the SS, which came closer to his vision of an “aristocratic” version of fascism. This vision included the idea that to avoid sinking into the quicksand of modern decadence, it would be necessary to breed a caste of warrior-priests and recreate the rigid hierarchies that modernity sought to transcend.

Another major influence on Dugin is Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist who reduced the whole of politics to sovereign decision-making in a world rigorously divided into friends and enemies.

Dugin has forged alliances with figures on the alt-right such as Richard Spencer, who published one of his books (translated by Spencer’s now ex-wife), and he has warmly endorsed outright neo-Nazi groups such as the Traditionalist Worker Party.⁵ Dugin traffics in esoteric mythologies, of the kind that were popular in Germany in the generation leading up to the Third Reich. He himself drew attention to this when he named the press he founded “Arktogaia,” harking back to demented theories of a primeval Aryan superior race supposedly migrating from an Arctic land called Hyperborea.⁶

Dugin didn’t hesitate to describe himself as fascist in the 1990s when he cofounded the National Bolshevik Party with another erratic extremist, Eduard Limonov. In fact, in an uninhibited text entitled “Fascism – Borderless and Red,” Dugin, like Evola, demanded a purer, more stringent fascism. In The Future is History,⁷ Masha Gessen notes that Dugin acquired fame in Russia when he produced and narrated a three-part documentary miniseries that was an exercise in mystical Hitler-worship, broadcast on Russian TV in 1993. But Dugin subsequently became more cagey – hence the appeal to the supposed “fourth political theory.”

The positive content of this new theory or ideology is rather vague, overshadowed by his hatred of the West, disdain for liberal rights and freedoms and yearning for a cleansing apocalypse that will annihilate modernity. Dugin craves a restoration of the Russian Empire at its most expansive, led by a czar, and he has agitated for decades for Russia to begin this process of reestablishing the empire by seizing Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, Putin finally showed himself wholly on board with the project Dugin yearned for all along. Cathy Young, in an essay in The Bulwark, offered the perfect encapsulation of Dugin: he’s a “neofascist crank … either a kooky, occultism-obsessed prophet of Russian imperialism or a mega-troll whose public persona is a kind of performance art. (Of course, in truly postmodern fashion, it is possible that he is some combination of both.)”

There has always been controversy about the extent to which Dugin has or has not influenced Vladimir Putin. But in a decisively important speech on September 30, announcing Russia’s annexation of the four territories in which it held sham referendums, Putin seemingly went out of his way to allude to Dugin, saying the West collectively “is afraid of our philosophy and that’s why they try to assassinate our philosophers.”⁸ Putin, in this crucial speech, is thus in effect declaring Dugin to be one of his regime’s official philosophers. Dugin, in turn, responded to the speech by saying, “This is a fundamental declaration of war against the modern West and the modern world in general. This is a manifesto of Tradition. I can’t imagine how profound the consequences are. It was an eschatological, religious speech.”

It would be nice to view the ideological raving of Alexander Dugin as a purely intra-Russian affair. But it isn’t. The far right today is a global movement, which is why Bannon and Dugin had that meeting in Rome in the first place.⁹ In 2017, after he soured on Trump, Dugin apparently told an interviewer that he regarded Bannon as “Washington’s last hope.” And Bannon said to Teitelbaum regarding Dugin, “You know, I’m such a fan of his writing.” Bannon has described Dugin as “one of the greatest, most influential geopolitical thinkers and strategists of modern times.”

So what did these two influential firebrands of the contemporary far right actually have to discuss for eight hours? On the basis of his frequent and lengthy conversations with Bannon, Teitelbaum was able to reconstruct much of the content, relayed in chapter 12 of his book (from which all of the quotations below are drawn). The rendezvous took place in the Hotel de Russie, “blocks away from Julius Evola’s old apartment in Rome.” Early on, Bannon solicits Dugin’s views about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Yet it’s extremely unlikely that a faux intellectual like Bannon cared in the slightest what Martin Heidegger thought or didn’t think. The real game here is to appropriate Heideggerian jargon on behalf of a resurgent fascism.

When they resume after lunch, Bannon draws Dugin closer to what really concerns him. Bannon is sympathetic to Dugin’s argument that the West has no right to legislate a universal morality. And Bannon and Dugin agree on the proposition that modernity equals “pure nothingness.” But then they come to the question of America, which is where these two “Traditionalists” part company. Dugin points out that America was “the only state that was created in modernity,” accounting for its status as the very epitome of modernity as the pure nothingness that it is. Hence “America’s role in globalization, this hegemony, this pressure for human rights, democracy, and so on. All the worst things in the world.” For Dugin, the United States represents what Heidegger called the Seinsnacht, the “night of Being” – that is, the absolute hollowing-out of any possibility of cultural meaning.

Bannon defends America by counterarguing that what Dugin is attacking is not America as such but the liberal corruption of America: liberal modernity. The real America is defined by “a people, with roots, spirit, destiny.” Thus all we have to do to redeem a nonliberal America is to reinterpret it in Heideggerian – that is, fascistic – categories: The true America is being destroyed by liberalism and globalism and elites (liberal “overlords”) who care nothing for borders or traditions. Trump is doing for America what Dugin is trying to do for Russia: rescue it from the utter deracination that liberalism inflicts on human beings. The real America, Bannon says, is “not your enemy. It’s your ally.”

But then Bannon and Dugin hit another major sticking point: China! On Bannon’s (farfetched) account, the true Russia and the true America share the same “essence.” This is clearly not Dugin’s view. Bannon suggests that globalism is a kind of conspiracy intended to serve the interests of China above all; the Chinese are the true beneficiaries of the world system set up by the liberal overlords. If Russia and America are to find their shared essence, they must unite against China: “Mr. Dugin, it is imperative that you join us (the United States) against them (the Chinese).”

Dugin, whose demonization of the United States is and has always been at the core of his political thought, is obviously unmoved by this fantasy of a Russian-American axis, and doesn’t even waste breath responding to it. Bannon ends the conversation by appealing to their shared “Traditionalist” (i.e., Evolan) lineage. In effect he’s saying: we’re both fascists; hence we should be on the same side!

Let’s be clear: Bannon’s disclosure of his rendezvous with Dugin, to say nothing of his repeated expressions of esteem for Evola and his remark that Arktos offered “sophisticated” access to Evola and Dugin, represents a closet fascist exiting the closet. Why Bannon would make these incriminating avowals to someone writing a book about him and the far-right scene more generally remains a puzzle.

Why should we be concerned with any of this in 2022? After all, it’s five years since General John Kelly tossed Bannon out of the White House after Bannon egged on Trump to insinuate solidarity with the Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. Though he engages in relentlessly nasty and destructive rabble-rousing with his podcast, with luck he’ll be in prison before long, this time without a President Trump to pardon him.¹⁰

It would be nice to think that Bannon is no longer a menace, but this is far from certain. We know that Bannon was very active behind the scenes in inciting the awful things that blighted American democracy on January 6, 2021. We know that he once again had Trump’s ear in the runup to the assault on the Capitol, given the revelation by the January 6 committee that Trump had more than one conversation with Bannon on January 5. Jennifer Senior has reported in the Atlantic that Bannon spent the whole afternoon working the phones while the insurrection was in progress, despite claiming otherwise in an interview with her. (As Senior relates, Bannon’s cover story was punctured by his own daughter.)¹¹ It doesn’t require a whole lot of imagination to picture Bannon having had the same kind of malignant influence on Trump on January 5 and 6, 2021, as he did during his time in the White House.

If Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee in 2024, wins the next presidential election, he could very well reinstall Bannon as the standard-bearer of a more radical Trump second term. And given that possibility, we surely have a duty to acquire an even sharper awareness of Bannon as the cryptofascist that he clearly is (except that after publication of the Teitelbaum book, there’s nothing “crypto” about it).

In fact, Bannon is likely to remain what he has been since 2016: one of the most audacious and reckless ringleaders of the Trumpite movement, with or without Trump. President Biden has described the dominant MAGA wing of the Republican Party as “semi-fascist.” But if a Dugin-admiring Bannon once again comes to orchestrate the direction of Trumpism, as he may well do or maybe already does, then it may be wise to drop the qualifier “semi.”

Continue reading “Fascist International”

The following piece is a response to The Convenient Assumptions Lurking in Ronald Beiner’s Review, in which author Benjamin R. Teitelbaum replies to an earlier review of his book, War for Eternity.

No one reading my review of War for Eternity could think that I was lacking in appreciation for Benjamin Teitelbaum’s book. I began by saying that I found it a remarkable book and I ended by saying that he had performed a major service to people concerned about the return of neofascism, and I stand by those judgements. I’ve spent the last six years in the same rabbit-hole that he inhabits, so I can certainly sympathize with his obsession with this new intelligentsia of the radical right. What I can’t sympathize with is his impulse to befriend fascists and sometimes to take their side against critics. Teitelbaum obviously knows that he is treading controversial ground; I’m hardly the first reader of his to react with severe discomfort and unease.

Professor Teitelbaum is an intelligent scholar and a talented writer. The all-important point of contention between us, as I tried to make clear in my review essay, concerns the animating methodology behind what he himself calls his “immoral anthropology.” When I read the debates concerning his provocative version of ethnographic methodology in Current Anthropology, I was shocked not only by Teitelbaum’s own articulation of his views but also, and no less, by how many of his colleagues found his ideas attractive.

However, there was one very robust exception: the commentary by Nancy Scheper-Hughes. She wrote that she found Teitelbaum’s approach “disturbing” and “distasteful”; that he reduces the ethical demands of ethnographic fieldwork in all their complexity “to a single ethical mandate,” scholar-informant solidarity: “Solidarity, in turn, requires empathy, reciprocity, care, respect, and collusion … This applies (in Teitelbaum’s case) without restraint, critical thinking, or moral or political judgment.”

Teitelbaum may be well-intentioned, and may honestly think that his friendship or solidarity with his subjects generates insights into what drives these people that would otherwise be unavailable. I confess that, like Scheper-Hughes, I think Teitelbaum goes much too far in liberating research on the radical right from moral and political judgement, and hence doesn’t attend sufficiently to the perils involved. The idea that scholars should put their “values” aside when studying society has a long and unfortunate lineage in the history of social science, going back at least to Max Weber (if not Machiavelli). Teitelbaum and I agree that it’s urgent that we understand why far-right thinking is making a signal comeback in societies that should know better. We disagree strongly on the question of whether bracketing critical judgement about these ideologies and the people who spread them will help us do that.

Teitelbaum wonders why there is a problem in becoming chummy with the cryptofascists who are the subject of this book as well as the fascists and racists he researches in his other work. The reason, I think, is surpassingly simple: Jews cannot be friends with anti-Semites, and egalitarian democrats cannot be friends with fascists.

Commitment to some highly dubious methodology doesn’t override or annul that principle.

What we are witnessing now is the birth of a new political order.
— Stephen Bannon

A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important.
— Bernie Sanders

Steve Bannon, who became Donald Trump’s “senior strategist” soon after Trump won the November election, has enjoyed a meteoric rise, and a seemingly equally spectacular fall from grace, in the short time since Trump improbably became President. The rise and fall are closely connected. As soon as the mainstream media began dubbing the chief strategist “President Bannon,” it was obvious to anyone with any familiarity with Trump’s psyche – and no one who isn’t a total hermit cut off from all media can get away from Trump’s psyche – that Trump would quickly sour on his top adviser in the West Wing. Hence Trump, all too predictably, now assures us that he’s his own strategist. When dealing with Trump, what could be a worse sin than shoving him out of the limelight for which he so palpably hungers?

Bannon may hang on, or he may resign, or he may get the axe. We don’t know. But whether he’s in the White House, or back at Breitbart News, or somewhere else, Bannonite politics expresses something important and disturbing about the contemporary zeitgeist. Regardless of how much longer he lingers in the White House, we still have a real interest in penetrating Bannon’s hyperactive political brain. Hence the following attempt to sketch a political-intellectual profile of this cantankerous and wily operator. If this turns out to be a political obituary of Stephen K. Bannon, so be it.

A short history of Bannonism

Up until the point when he joined the Trump campaign in August 2016, Bannon was a manically voluble communicator. He gave strident lectures to right-wing groups. He made films celebrating conservative icons from Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin – there are reports that as a filmmaker Bannon modelled himself on Leni Riefenstahl. He even collaborated on the script for a rap version of Coriolanus, “drawn to Shakespeare’s Roman plays,” according to the woman with whom he co-authored the script, “because of their heroic military violence.”1

Then Bannon closed up like a clam. Presumably, the time for words had ended; the time for deeds had begun. Bannon is on record as welcoming darkness and destruction. And in Trump, Bannon seemed to have found the suitable political instrument of the darkness and destruction for which he yearns.2

Yes, there has been the odd interview with Bannon, often for the purpose of denying that he is a racist. Were those denials reliable? If so, one has to ponder why white supremacists like Richard B. Spencer were so visibly enthused by the Bannon-Trump consortium. Spencer, one will recall, immediately became the most visible face of the alt-right (neofascist) movement in America by greeting the Trump victory with the proclamation, “Let’s party like it’s 1933,” and by eliciting Nazi salutes from his followers when he shouted “hail Trump!” at a postelection alt-right conference in Washington.3 In any case, soon after earning this notoriety, Spencer released a provocative podcast in which he offered the following astonishing commentary on Bannon:

I think Bannon is a wild card, and a wild card is good … Bannon has made gestures towards us; he’s said Breitbart is a platform for the alt-right. He’s apparently read Julius Evola and Alexander Dugin. Make of that what you will … We want a wild card; we want change. So, I think Bannon is a good thing.4

What’s wrong with this picture?

Julius Evola (1898–1974) was a ferocious racist and anti-egalitarian who characterized his politics as being to the right (!) of European fascism and who helped inspire far-right terrorism in Italy; Aleksandr Dugin (born 1962) is a Russian fascist who despises liberal democracy and believes in Russian imperial expansion far beyond anything aspired to by Vladimir Putin. Clearly, Spencer refers to Bannon’s awareness of Evola and Dugin because he sees it as a further indication that Bannon is with “us.” (Spencer is an English-language publisher of Dugin.)5 In the same podcast, Spencer also tellingly pointed out that the final video ad of the Trump campaign (surely inspired by Bannon) “reminded me quite a bit” of videos produced by NPI (National Policy Institute, Spencer’s far-right, white-nationalist outfit).

Perhaps the most salient commonality between Bannon’s ideology and Dugin’s is the yearning for a grand apocalypse (World War III) expressed in both. In fact, the yearning for a cleansing apocalypse seems to be a conspicuous feature of several of the scariest ideologies that confront us today, including the ideology of the Islamic State, Duginism and now Bannonism.6 (And one should hasten to point out: even if Bannon is turfed out of the West Wing tomorrow, that doesn’t guarantee that “Bannonism” as a far-right populist movement is finished. In fact, there have been pointed suggestions from the Bannon camp that Bannon’s removal would prompt “the movement” to retaliate against Trump for having betrayed it; that very possibility of rebellion against Trump by the populist base may well be precisely what is currently keeping Bannon in place.)

When an earlier version of this article was posted on the Crooked Timber blogsite, a comment by Bruce Wilder cited a disturbing exchange between Bannon and David Kaiser, in which Bannon expressed his strong conviction that “the current crisis” will lead to a conflagration “at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term.” Kaiser, as quoted by Wilder, said that Bannon “did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.” As a comment by Andrew Brown on the Crooked Timber thread rightly pointed out, this is fully consistent with what Bannon said in a discussion in which he participated via Skype in the context of a 2014 conference held in the Vatican.7

Given the paucity of direct evidence with regard to how Bannon thinks politically, what his policy agenda is and what might define his vision of a desirable politics, it is not surprising that the transcript of this discussion (which is the “text” alluded to in the Spencer podcast discussed above) has gotten substantial attention. The Skype exchange can be employed as a preliminary window into Bannon’s political thinking:

  • Bannon claims that there is both a crisis of capitalism and a crisis of Judeo-Christian values, and the two crises are interwoven. Bannon endorses a Christian rejection of liberal secularization; in fact, the contempt for Christianity on the part of ruling elites constitutes proof for him of the cultural arrogance of those elites. He suggests that Christianity was a key part of what sustained the health of capitalism, so secularization is simultaneously antireligious and anticapitalist.
  • Again and again, Bannon rails against “crony capitalism” (this from a former investment banker who worked for Goldman Sachs!). At the same time, he attacks what he calls “state-sponsored capitalism” (in China and Russia). Bannon endorses a quasi-Marxist critique of the kind of Wall Street capitalism that treats people like commodities. But this doesn’t deter him from also saying, “We are strong capitalists; the harder-nosed the capitalism, the better.” He claims that God favours capitalism (“divine providence” intends for us to be committed job creators and wealth creators). But Christian capitalists must support “putting a cap on wealth creation and distribution.”
  • Bannon endorses a Samuel Huntington–type thesis of a clash of civilizations between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam. He suggests that the coming fight between Christianity and Islam will be of the same order of magnitude as the civilizational cataclysms associated with the First and Second world wars. He more or less assumes that jihadi versions of Islam are what represent Islam in this coming civilizational struggle.
  • Bannon aligns himself with a Tea Party critique of the Republican establishment (the fight against which is more urgent than the fight against the Democrats); with right-wing Catholic anti-abortion and pro–traditional marriage politics; and with far-right European populist parties like UKIP and the National Front. He repeatedly refers to the National Front as “centre-right” because it represents a backlash of “the middle class, the working men and women in the world” against arrogant cosmopolitan elites. Washington, Beijing and Brussels all belong to the same international elite that disdains ordinary people and bosses them around. Bannon even goes so far as to suggest that the centralized U.S. government is as elitist and detached from the ordinary citizenry as the European Union. Should both be disbanded? Bannon definitely gestures in that direction. (Tellingly, when Bannon allegedly called himself a “Leninist,” he elaborated what he meant as follows: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment” – what has been aptly referred to as Bannon’s “right-wing-revolutionary schtick.”8 As is fairly clear, many of Trump’s cabinet appointments have been suggestive of such an agenda.)
  • While conceding that Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy, Bannon defends far-right (“centre-right”!) populist movements in Europe with respect to admiring Putin because Putin stands for a firm concept of committed nationality. Insofar as Putin’s nationalism draws sustenance from fascist sources, that doesn’t seem objectionable to Bannon. (He cites Julius Evola and alludes to Aleksandr Dugin; hence the remarks made by Richard Spencer.) Overall, Tea Party themes (particularly outrage at the complicity between big government and the bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crisis) seem much more salient than alt-right themes, though Bannon puts a lot of emphasis on the “Judeo-Christian” foundation of the West. He believes (or says he believes) that racial and ethnic aspects of contemporary populism will fade as populism attains its ends, which largely consist in the humbling of ruling elites.

One suspects that Bannon consistently refers to “Judeo-Christian” morality for the same reason that he calls far-right politics “centre-right” politics: to mask (though not with any real effectiveness) the ugly radicalism of his commitments. As Spencer rightly points out in the podcast discussed above (and as was evident to countless people who viewed the ad), the Bannon/Breitbart-inspired final ad of the Trump campaign featured a visibly anti-Semitic subtext. Also, it’s hard to believe that Bannon and Trump were unaware of the unpleasant lineage of the inaugural address’s slogan of “America First.”

Putting it all together, his worldview comes across as a hodgepodge of incompatible ideologies whose common thread is hatred of (liberal) elites.9 One can speculate that Trump was drawn to Bannon because Bannon gave expression to the political opportunities ripe to be exploited in European-style right-wing populism: the idea was that whatever is driving the rise of populism in Europe can drive populism in America as well.10 Beyond this strategic instinct or insight, Bannon fails to articulate a coherent set of ideas, apart from the notion of a conspiracy on the part of a sinister liberal-cosmopolitan elite (“the party of Davos”) against common folk in Kansas and Colorado. As the statement of a political philosophy, one has to say that it is pretty shallow and poorly thought through.

How do Bannon’s professed Christian beliefs consort with his commitment to hard-nosed capitalism (“the harder-nosed the better”)? How does his vehement antistatism mesh with his forbearance for authoritarian Putinite nationalism? Why are Bannon and Trump themselves exempt from membership in the despised elite? It suggests to me that people whose whole life revolves around making money and consolidating power (including media power) – and this is true of Bannon no less than Trump – haven’t made it a priority to reflect on what their actual positive political principles are (insofar as it’s appropriate to speak of “principles” in this context). Needless to say, we saw a lot of that in the the hollowness and inconsistency of Trump’s campaign; and we’ve been seeing more of the same (a conspicuous lack of thought-out principles) during the early months of Trump’s chaotic and flip-flopping Administration.11

Of course, Bannon has some very strong opinions, and those opinions follow identifiable patterns. What’s less clear is whether those opinions (the nefariousness of ruling elites, the evil of the dominant liberal-secular culture, the threat posed to the West by “Islam,” the need to shake up the political culture in a thoroughly radical way) jell into something that’s particularly coherent, with intelligible or predictable policy implications. To be sure, there is a distinctive Bannonite ideology, but it is, to say the least, a highly tension-ridden ideology, and all the various contradictions between thought and practice in Bannon’s career (Harvard Business School, Goldman Sachs, Hollywood, and now membership in the ruling elite) reflect those very tensions.

It should not be assumed that speech and deeds, logos and praxis, will be in harmony. Bannon and Trump are ruthless operators, playing the political game in a hyper-Machiavellian fashion. Words are not used primarily to express political intentions or to articulate a sincerely held political vision. To a much greater extent, they serve to keep people guessing, or to provide active smokescreens for their real designs, or to manipulate people by pushing the right buttons – or maybe it’s just a question of getting a “buzz” from knowing that one has the power to stir up millions of people with one’s words and images (hence the Riefenstahl fixation). The Bannon-led Breitbart News is reported to have had 45 million readers.12 That’s a lot of power – especially when one considers that fewer than 63 million votes sufficed for Trump to win the presidency. If Bannon insists that he’s not alt-right,13 yet also says that he was content to turn Breitbart into “a platform for the alt-right,” then that in itself is a clear acknowledgement that purposes were being served other than the expression of actual political commitments (the pursuit of truth not being one of those purposes!).

Bannon the political agitator railed against what the bankers got away with during the crisis of 2008; Bannon the senior strategist almost certainly supported a relaxation of post-2008 regulatory controls on Wall Street.14 The political activist Bannon cast “crony capitalists” as the root of all evil, yet the Trump cabinet (surely with Bannon’s encouragement) has exhibited no lack of crony capitalists – on the contrary, they seem to predominate. “Globalism” was supposedly the enemy, but that obviously didn’t rule out appointing Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil executives to positions of consummate power. Bannon famously told the Wall Street Journal that his whole commitment to populist politics flowed directly from the plunge in his father’s AT&T stocks owing to the 2008 financial crisis.15 But it would require pretty twisted political reasoning to see the personnel or policies of the Trump administration as a reasonable redress for Marty Bannon’s anguish about his ravaged savings.

Ross Douthat, an astute New York Times columnist, summed up the first 72 days of the Trump Administration as follows: “A core weakness of this White House … is the absence of anyone who seems to have thought through how one might translate Trumpism, the populist nationalism on which the president campaigned, into substantive policy on any specific issue except a temporary visa freeze.” Douthat explicitly directed this judgement against Bannon: “It was probably unreasonable to expect a sixtysomething whose life experience is all in media and Hollywood to suddenly turn into a one-man think tank, no matter how many French far-right agitators he name-drops.”16 This fits neatly with my argument that Bannon/Trump’s philosophical and policy incoherence was perfectly apparent even before the Trump administration took office.

The politics of The Joker

In truth, the disparate balls being juggled in Bannon’s ideological juggling act – Tea Party libertarianism, compassionate conservatism, Christian piety and moralism,17 European-style populist nationalism (not excluding its Putinophile aspects), clash-of-civilizations Islamophobia, with ominous “gestures” to the alt-right – are too eclectic to be taken at face value.18 Still, the overall political effect is in deadly earnest. At the end of 2016, it was reported that the Trump crew had welcomed the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party at Trump Tower.19 This was fully consistent with the pattern of Bannon’s political alignments as we’ve come to know them. Despite what he says, Bannon is emphatically not a political thinker or political doer of the “centre-right” – or at least, what he takes to be centre-right is very far removed indeed from what the vast majority of us understand by it.

At one point we got the bizarre news that Trump had reportedly offered Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has promoted the theory that vaccines are responsible for autism, a position as “vaccine czar.”20 Surely, that could only have been Bannon’s idea, and tells one everything one needs to know about the Bannon style of “governing.” It’s his perverse sense of humour, which then supplies the foundation for his politics (or antipolitics). Responsible government is all a big joke. The point is to laugh in the faces of the established political class, and to make sure that they know that you’re laughing in their faces. As Bannon himself more or less suggested in his Hollywood Reporter interview, and as seemed to be subtly intimated in Trump’s inaugural address, it’s a politics of The Joker.21 The Vatican correspondent for Breitbart News, Thomas Williams, gave his then-boss, Bannon, the following excellent advice: “If you are going to tear down, you better know what you are building.” Yet Williams knew that Bannon was incapable of taking that advice: “I think he prefers tearing down to building up, honestly.”22 The overriding purpose was to throw a brick through the window of the political establishment, and Trump was that brick.

Another initiative of the Trump administration that had Bannon’s fingerprints all over it was the startling plan to require weekly publication of crimes committed by immigrants and/or aliens: “This proposed list is a move reminiscent of Breitbart News … Infamously, Breitbart had a ‘black crime’ section, opened as a response to Black Lives Matter.” And the relentless attacks on the mainstream media during the first weeks of the new administration unquestionably represented another area where Trump and Bannon thought as one, as Bannon himself made clear in a characteristically pit-bull interview given to the New York Times.23 In short, we have good reason to suspect that Trump’s most radical early initiatives were all Bannon-inspired (or at least, Bannon encouraged and cheered on Trump’s most radical impulses). Also fairly disturbing was something reported in the wake of the initial defeat of Trump’s anti-Obamacare American Health Care Act. Bannon and Trump, according to this report, insisted on a roll call in the House of Representatives, despite being assured by Speaker Paul Ryan that the vote was sure to fail. The idea was to use this roll call as the basis for an “enemies list” (what Bannon himself apparently referred to as a “shit list”) – with all its sinister Nixonian echoes. Ryan, to his credit, refused to play this game and cancelled the vote.24

Prior to being put in charge of the Trump campaign, Bannon famously confessed that Trump is “a blunt instrument for us. I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.”25 Well, blunt instrument for the pursuit of what political project exactly? And who exactly is the us in Bannon’s “for us”? How does this us relate to Spencer’s us when he said in his podcast that “Bannon has made gestures towards us”?

To keep our sanity in the Trump era, I think we’ll need to hold before our mind’s eye a picture of some imaginable scenario that might redeem this absurdity of a Steve Bannon occupying a prominent office in the West Wing (which, as of this writing, he still does). Here’s mine: Trump makes a complete fool of himself every day for the next four years. (So far, that’s pretty much what he’s been doing.) The 2020 Democratic nomination goes to Andrew Cuomo, who picks a dynamic young Hispanic (Julián Castro?) as his running mate. They make mincemeat of Trump and Pence in the election and win by a landslide. Then, as soon as a vacancy opens up, Cuomo appoints Obama to the Supreme Court. The bad guys lose and the good guys eventually have the last laugh.

This is not impossible. If it were, it’s hard to see how we would be able to fend off the despair of witnessing the current political ascendency of Bannon and his Tea Party philosophy. In any case, of one thing we can be absolutely certain: the inauguration of Trump’s successor as president, hopefully no later than January 2021, will attract a far larger crowd than Trump’s.

Continue reading “The rise, and apparent fall, of President Bannon”

Aleksandr Dugin has come to public attention (even in Canada, though only fairly recently) as “Putin’s Brain,” as Foreign Affairs memorably dubbed him1 – that is, as the ideological mastermind behind Russia’s moves toward reasserting imperial ambitions, notably with respect to Ukraine.

Is this accurate, or is it just media hype? The truth is that it’s extremely difficult to judge with confidence exactly to what extent Vladimir Putin’s more aggressive policies toward Ukraine or anywhere else reflect Dugin’s influence (or supposed influence) as an omnipresent publicist and behind-the-curtain adviser to aspiring czars. The suspicion easily arises that Putin uses Dugin, letting him rant on state TV, without himself buying into Dugin’s crazy worldview. But whether Dugin really is influencing Russian policy or is simply the object of excessive hype, intellectuals as well as ordinary citizens in the West need to be aware of him, lest they be taken in by his pretensions as a theorist and his claimed interest in civilizational dialogue and pluralism, which functions as a rhetorical cloak. Either way, he’s dangerous.2

Dugin has given his distinctive ideology a variety of different labels: National Bolshevism, neo-Eurasianism, the fourth political theory. They all amount to the same thing: a scheme for uniting all the global enemies of liberalism under Russian leadership and displacing the current liberal dispensation with something virulently antiliberal and antimodern or premodern. Dugin aims, in fact, at a fusion of totalitarian ideologies, from fascism and even Nazism at one end to Marxism at the other end. Yet his ideological roots are far closer to fascist and proto-Nazi sources (for instance, the demented “Ariosophy” doctrines of Guido von List and Jörg Lanz) than they are to anything in the Marxist tradition – which is why both Dugin’s English-language publishers and the websites that are drawn to him belong to the ultra-right. Dugin’s “politics” are bathed in the swampy waters of mystical esotericism and occultism, and his root-and-branch rejection of liberal democracy likely owes far more to his spiritualist and theological or pseudotheological commitments than to anything we would customarily understand as political or philosophical.

On February 5, 2015, Ontario’s TVO broadcast an episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin featuring Dugin.3 The show, entitled “Big Minds on the Future of Democracies,” included Francis Fukuyama, a well-known and influential public intellectual, as well as Ivan Krastev, another widely respected political scientist concerned with the future of democracy. This already conveyed the impression that Dugin is a serious academic on a par with the other two. The show went out of its way to publicize Dugin’s newly published work Eurasian Mission, giving it equal standing with one of Fukuyama’s books. Eurasian Mission is published by Arktos Media, an incontrovertibly “Aryanist” or white supremacist outfit.4 On its cover, repeatedly displayed on the TV screens of TVO’s viewers, is the Symbol of Chaos5 – Dugin’s no less malevolent version of the swastika. It is hard to imagine that Paikin or the TVO producers knew what they were doing when they gave the purveyor of this reptilian ideology his platform on public television. But it is not too late to educate ourselves.

In presenting Dugin to their viewers, TVO advertised him as a “Russian philosopher and political activist.” Is Dugin a Russian philosopher? Yes, it seems that he is. Dugin’s book Martin Heidegger: The Philosophy of Another Beginning (published by Radix, another far-right press) offers a competent and at times interesting commentary on the philosophy of Heidegger, one of the major thinkers of the 20th century. Only a fellow philosopher could pursue that kind of engagement with a philosopher as challenging and as important as Heidegger6 – although Dugin’s book in no way hides the fact that he’s at least as strongly drawn to Heidegger’s ideological significance as to his philosophical significance. Dugin is very intensely focused on the Heidegger of 1936–1945, a period throughout which Heidegger was a card-carrying Nazi, however much he may have believed that Hitler’s version of National Socialism was grossly inferior to his own.

Since the Enlightenment, there has been a line of important thinkers who have regarded life in liberal modernity as profoundly dehumanizing. This line includes Joseph de Maistre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt and Heidegger. For such thinkers, liberal modernity is so humanly degrading that one ought to, if one could, undo the French Revolution and its egalitarianism, and perhaps cancel out the whole moral legacy of Christianity. For all of them, hierarchy and rootedness are more morally compelling than equality and individual liberty.

In his Heidegger book, Dugin helps to bring out why certain intellectuals of the early 20th century gravitated toward fascism: a grim preoccupation with the perceived soullessness of modernity, and a resolve to embrace any politics, however extreme, that seemed to them to promise what Heidegger called “spiritual renewal.”7 Dugin is now the latest thinker in this line of philosophers of the radical right. But his identity as a philosopher is only one aspect of Dugin’s intellectual personality. He’s also very much captivated by mysticism and occultism, and he’s a determined ideologue who is willing to reach out to allies in the gutter.
It seems that there are really three Aleksandr Dugins: let’s call them the philosophical Dugin, the witchcraft-dispensing Dugin8 and the ideology-mongering Dugin. One notable work of Dugin’s available in English is entitled The Fourth Political Theory. Despite the misleading title, intended to convey the image of Dugin as a “theorist,” offering the world a new “political theory,” this work corresponds to the ideology-mongering Dugin. Here Dugin is not in the theory business at all; he’s in the ideology business. And the ideology that he is hawking involves celebration of blatantly totalitarian and ruthlessly imperialistic forms of politics. Consider a telling passage in a recent text by Dugin entitled “The Fourth Estate”:

The Fourth Political Theory … is built on the imperative of overcoming modernity and all three political ideologies in order (the order has tremendous significance): (1) liberalism, (2) communism, (3) nationalism (fascism). The subject of this theory, in its simple version, is the concept “narod,” roughly, “Volk” or “people,” in the sense of “peoplehood” and “peoples,” not “masses.”

What does Dugin mean in suggesting that while one must overcome all the leading ideologies of the 20th century, “the order has tremendous significance”? The implication is that the normative objections to liberalism far exceed the normative objections to fascism. Fascism may not be perfect, but there is more there (even in the Nazi version!) that is worthy of being incorporated in Dugin’s higher ideological synthesis than there is in Western-style bourgeois liberalism. Yes, all three ideologies have to be “overcome,” but they are not on the same level. One needs to rank them. Shockingly for a reader in the liberal West, the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century (Bolshevism, fascism, Nazism) rank higher – much higher – than morally egalitarian liberalism does.

Dugin’s desire to incorporate fascism into his antiliberal ideology is not a matter of conjecture or interpretation: he himself openly avows it. In The Fourth Political Theory, he writes that the kind of radically antiliberal grand coalition that he envisions – encompassing the far right, the far left, the radical Green movement, jihadi Islam and millenarian (for instance, evangelical and Pentecostal) Christianity – requires “putting aside anti-Communist as well as anti-fascist, prejudices. These prejudices are the instruments in the hands of liberals and globalists with which to keep their enemies divided. So we should strongly reject anti-Communism as well as anti-fascism. Both of them are counter-revolutionary tools in the hands of the global liberal elite.”9

Marxism was right in its collectivism and anticapitalism, and fascism/Nazism was right in its primordialism and antirationalism. These disparate ideologies have to be fused and made to work together (hence “National Bolshevism,” Dugin’s antecedent to neo-Eurasianism). In the interests of advancing this more potent synthesis of totalitarian ideologies, concerns about 20th-century fascism and Nazism are to be dismissed as mere “prejudices.” Dugin is far from being a closet fascist. Nor, for that matter, is he a closet Bolshevik. The key idea is that if Communism and Nazism were not sufficient on their own to defeat liberalism, only a synthesis of the two can do the job. Dugin’s suggestive slogan “Third Rome – Third Reich – Third International” aptly conveys the scope of his ambitions.

In The Fourth Political Theory, Dugin claims that he repudiates the “racism, xenophobia, and chauvinism” of the fascist past, which he refers to as “unacceptable elements” of fascism/Nazism.10 Yes, he wants to incorporate a fascist and Nazi component in his antiliberal ideology, but his will be a kinder, gentler fascism purged of racism and nationalist chauvinism. One would have to be credulous in the extreme to be taken in by these disclaimers. Dugin’s “National Bolshevism” arose in concert with the Pamyat’ movement of the late 1980s, which in turn is traceable in a direct ideological line back to the infamous Black Hundred movement in the early 20th century – responsible, according to Walter Laqueur, for 700 or so anti-Jewish pogroms.11

With respect to Dugin’s political affiliations and alignments within Russia, the story is one of a bewildering multiplicity and diversity of political identities, zigzagging from the far right to the left to the right to the “centre,” and so on. What consistently underlies and makes sense of these frantic migrations and manoeuvrings all over the political map is commitment to a project of a Nazified Russia laying claim to an ambitious empire straddling continents, and thereby coming to dominate the world. If these mad imperial designs lead to World War III, so much the better,12 since we know from Dugin’s lunatic theology that he heartily welcomes, in fact positively yearns for, an eschatological “climax” – what he typically refers to as Finis Mundi, “the end of the world.” Dugin offers us a millenarian vision that matches to an astonishing degree the parallel millenarianism of the Islamic State.13

What this erratic political career, with all its volatile ideological shifts, also tells us is that none of Dugin’s various statements and disclaimers (for instance, on the topic of racism) can be taken at face value. Or rather: the only Duginian utterances and pronouncements that can be trusted are those that are most extreme, which are certainly in no way lacking.14

In a YouTube video advertising one of his recent books (Putin vs. Putin: A View from the Right),15 Dugin celebrates Vladimir Putin as a new “czar.” He’s a new czar, Dugin insists, not because he’s a dictator or aspiring dictator but because the Russian people want and demand a czar. Putin is a czar by virtue of the kind of authority that he embodies – but also, clearly, because he is the spearhead of the project for a recovered Russian empire. The difference from earlier czars, it should be pointed out, is that the aspired-to empire in this case (as Dugin envisions it) far exceeds in its dimensions what the Russian Empire was in the past.

But make no mistake: Dugin is not speaking to Russian imperialists alone. Dugin aims to assemble as broad an antiliberal coalition as possible, extending even to environmentalist terrorists like the Unabomber, although he tends to side with Shia and Sufi Islam over Sunni Islam, sometimes going so far as cast Sunni extremists as if they were allies of the West. From Dugin’s own standpoint, all enemies of liberalism are crusaders fighting in the same cause – to destroy modernity. Dugin is an ecumenical jihadist. “Jihadists of all civilizations unite!” is his true slogan.

In a sense, exposing Dugin as a dangerous charlatan is redundant. He does it to himself with words spoken out of his own mouth. And it’s all on YouTube. Consider an especially revealing eight-minute interview filmed in Indonesia in which Dugin fully lays out his “political-theological” vision.16 He cites the authority of Russian Orthodox monks who assure him of the coming Apocalypse. He divides up the world into good Muslims (Sufi mystics and theocratic Shiites) and bad Muslims (Sunnis aligned with the West, it would seem); good Christians (Orthodox) and bad Christians (Western); good Jews and bad Jews (mainly bad!). He posits an “eschatological line” and arranges world civilizations on one side of this line or the other, foretelling their historical destiny or historical extinction. He predicts the reconquest of “Constantinople” on behalf of Russian Orthodoxy (the Islamic State predicts the same thing on behalf of the caliphate!). He refers to the existing world order as “Pax Judaica.” He claims to have a direct line to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (President of Iran at the time of the interview).

It is easy to dismiss all of this as a wild rant, since that is what it is, except that it is a wild rant emanating from someone listened to with seeming respect by the President of Russia, the former president of Iran and the current Foreign Minister of Greece. (There is a congenial-looking photo posted online of Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias posing in close proximity to Dugin.17) And even if Putin and the people around Putin are using Dugin rather than being influenced by him, there is no question that there are vast numbers of people, within and beyond Russia, who are being influenced by Dugin’s ideology and by his political-theological fantasies. According to Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn, there are no fewer than 56 branch offices of Dugin’s Eurasian Youth Union: 47 within Russia and nine abroad.18

Our contemporary context is mightily relevant. I would urge readers to consult an acute analysis by John Gray in the October 2014 issue of Prospect entitled “The Liberal Delusion.” Gray argues that for liberals, peace, freedom and prosperity are self-evidently the natural aspirations of all human beings, and liberals get utterly bewildered when individuals or societies have the opportunity to choose these liberal ideals and instead unaccountably opt for antiliberal visions of life. One important example of this liberal bewilderment, but not at all the only one, concerns Putin’s Russia, where the President’s authoritarianism and his reassertion of “the claims of geopolitics, ethnicity and empire” are astoundingly popular. This makes no sense to those for whom liberal ideals are the default aspiration of humanity. Gray writes,

The Soviet debacle was an opportunity to reclaim a normalcy denied them for over 40 years. A sort of normalcy has returned; but it is the kind that Europe experienced in much of the first half of the last century, a condition of chronic crisis. Structural flaws in the single currency have left much of Southern Europe in permanent depression. Reunited by the fall of communism, the continent has been re-divided by the European project. Across Europe, there has been a resurgence of the far right and the politics of hate.

As we should have been taught by the catastrophes of the 20th century, cultural-economic-political crisis of this kind provides the perfect opening for demagogues and lunatics who can exploit these crises to turn the whole world upside down. If the far right and the politics of hate are enjoying a notable resurgence, which they are, then Dugin, however much he may appear to liberals as a kind of intellectual clown, is precisely the sort of thuggish enemy of liberalism whom we must most fear. We are learning anew that fascism (including its theocratic versions), with its brown uniforms and black flags, has a romance that liberals underestimate at their peril. Similar wisdom can be drawn from George Orwell as quoted by Graeme Wood in a recent report on the rise of the Islamic State written for The Atlantic: fascism is “psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.” Socialism and capitalism convey the message “I offer you a good time”; Hitler’s message, by contrast, is “I offer you struggle, danger and death.” “We ought not to underrate emotional appeal,” writes Wood.19 This is relevant to understanding not only the appeal of Hitler and the Islamic State but also that of Dugin.

It should seem obvious that the 20th century is not something any of us would want to replay in the 21st century. Nietzsche, in Ecce Homo, predicted in 1889 that the century to come would see “upheavals, a convulsion of earthquakes, a moving of mountains and valleys, the like of which has never been dreamed of. There will be wars the like of which have never yet been seen on earth.” And so it came to pass! Why would any sane person want to do it all over again: see the world convulsed by totalitarian ideologies, genocide and apocalyptic wars? How can this prospect possibly be attractive – in the eyes of Dugin and his disciples or of anyone else? Can human beings really be so blind and misguided as to have learned nothing from the 20th century at its worst?

That seems unthinkable, yet the atrocious ideologies currently gaining ground in Europe and in other parts of the world are forcing us to reconsider what Gray calls “the liberal delusion,” the faith that history favours liberalism. That’s why Dugin and likeminded extremists have to be taken with deadly seriousness. As the recently assassinated Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, put it in an interview with the Globe and Mail: “The most difficult question for Russia is what kind of revolution you will get – orange or brown or red. There is a very big danger for Russians and for the world because, unfortunately, nationalists and fascists are very popular in this country.”

Barack Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize address got it right – “evil does exist in the world” – and in the case of Duginism that very thing is staring us right in the face. Readers are urged to check out the websites of Dugin’s English-language publishers, Radix and Arktos Media, so that they may judge for themselves the ideological complexion of these organizations.20 Is this a kind of guilt by association? No: Dugin is so eclectic and ecumenical in his extremism that we need to be aware of those with whom he associates in order to pierce through the bewildering variety of his sources and references. Dugin himself decides which toxic intellectual sources to draw on in defining his own ideology, and he likewise picks the vile comrades with whom he chooses to collaborate. Opting to align yourself with Julius Evola (one of Dugin’s arch-fascist intellectual heroes)21 and Arktos Media is decidedly a mode of self-disclosure and is probably our most reliable point of access to what Dugin is really about.

Andreas Umland, an important scholar of Duginism, has recently written that Dugin “envisages himself not as a public intellectual but rather as a mastermind who need not necessarily run the state himself, but should define the thinking of the elite: not a politician, but a meta-politician. Ideally, Dugin the theoretician would generate ideas that the political leaders and the propaganda workers would, consciously or subconsciously, realize.”22 With this concerted commitment to “meta-politics” on the part of Dugin and his followers as well as kindred ideologues of his ilk, we need, as one website rightly puts it, to keep “an eye on the neo-fascists burrowing their way into a subculture near you.”23 Dugin puts huge emphasis on the idea of “geopolitics,” and his spreading influence, first in Russia and now in other societies, has its own significant geopolitical implications. After Putin’s aggressions against Ukraine, with their real potential for geopolitical mischief, it no longer seems hyperbolic to call Aleksandr Dugin one of the most dangerous ideologues on the planet.24 All responsible citizens in the West need to know who he is and what he stands for.

Continue reading “Russia’s ecumenical jihadist”

The Islamic State is only one example of its surprising return

Human history is full of surprises. Who would have imagined that something called the Internet would come along and comprehensively transform how the inhabitants of this planet relate to one another not only culturally and socially but even politically? After 1989, when one had decent reason to believe that the age of totalitarian ideologies was definitively over (or at least banished for many generations), who would have expected a new totalitarian ideology to be a significant global player so soon? And who on earth would have predicted that ancient theocracy, of all things, would come to define the core of this new ideology?

The problem of religion and politics is obviously still very much with us. For 35 years, we have had a stubbornly illiberal clerical regime in Iran. In Egypt not long ago we saw a popularly elected theocratic government, which was subsequently overthrown by what amounted to a military coup. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are fighting deadly serious jihadi insurgencies with theocratic ambitions that may or may not be defeated. In Syria and Iraq, the jihadi movement that now calls itself “the Islamic State” (formerly ISIL or ISIS) aspires to a restored caliphate, and has been able to demonstrate, with notable military victories against the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, that those aspirations are not a wild fantasy. No one surveying the scene in 2014 could confidently assert that theocracy as a possible regime has been banished to the past.

Islam gets most of the headlines, but the problem of contemporary theocratic politics is by no means limited to Islamic contexts. In Israel, both domestic politics and relations with the Palestinians are severely complicated by theocratic political parties. In the Balkans, we recently saw the Serbian Orthodox Church trying to scuttle a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo brokered by the European Union. Or consider reports, not long ago, of radical Buddhist monks helping to incite anti-Islamic ethnic violence in central Myanmar. The last is perhaps especially disturbing (certainly if one presumes that no religious tradition could be more politically benign than Buddhism!) since it underscores the existence of ugly forms of theocratic politics beyond the ambit of the three Abrahamic faiths. We see a similar phenomenon in Hindu nationalism. Indeed, a theocratic potential exists in all the world religions.

All of this, of course, demands urgent responses at the level of policy and practical judgement. But the renewed challenge of theocracy in our time also demands more considered intellectual responses at the level of moral reflection. For starters, we need to ask ourselves once again what defines a secular society (that is, a society founded on a principled rejection of theocracy), and why we prize secularist principles as we do. Why is secularism for us in liberal democratic societies an indispensable civic good?

Religion’s complicated balance sheet

We have a classic statement of the theocratic idea in Rev. Jerry Falwell’s memorable line (in his 1976 U.S. Independence Day sermon) that “the idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” To begin working through what is at issue here, think back for a moment to the 2012 U.S. presidential election. We wouldn’t want to bar Mitt Romney, a former bishop of the Mormon church, from seeking the presidency on account of his religious beliefs, but neither would we want those religious beliefs to have assumed any special authority had he been elected.

Political association is a community of citizens, not a community of believers. The political philosopher Will Kymlicka has written, “The boundaries of state and nation rarely if ever coincide perfectly, and so viewing the state as the possession of a particular national group can only alienate minority groups. The state must be seen as belonging equally to all people who are governed by it, regardless of their nationality.” The principle articulated here, which for me is a foundational one, is just the same (and just as valid) if we substitute religion and religious for nation and national (and the principle obviously has no less force in cases where a minority religion rather than the majority religion holds the seat of power). For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to have any special authority vis-à-vis other denominations or other religions would mean that the state would be “owned” by Mormons, or owned by them to a greater extent than it is owned by other citizens. This would be, to put it fairly mildly, normatively problematical.

One’s views concerning a proper and desirable negotiation of the relationship between politics and religion inevitably draw on one’s general views about religion, and about whether introducing religion into political, social and moral matters tends to make things better or worse. Let me sketch my views as briefly as I can. Shared religion clearly provides a focus of communal loyalty and identity; and as people participate in these deeper identities they can become willing to sacrifice their own comfort or security in ways that may be more difficult to elicit from us secularist types. So we sometimes see religion provide a foundation for forms of moral and civic heroism that are indeed worthy of admiration.One might even consider the hypothesis that there’s a kind of “amplifier effect” associated with religion, exaggerating the moral tendencies that are already present – so that, in effect, religion makes good people better and bad people worse. The notion here would be that believing one knows what God expects of us tends to intensify human behaviour, whether generous or wicked, reinforcing our determination to care for the needy or persecute the unfaithful.

And if, human nature being what it is, there tends to be a preponderance of human vice over human virtue, that would then offer an easy explanation of why, in the overall balance sheet of human life, the harm associated with religion is at least equal to its benefits. I don’t think it’s reasonable for anyone to argue that religion is solely a source of good or solely a source of harm. Clearly, it’s a very complicated balance sheet, and determining exactly where the balance lies between the good that religion fosters and the harm that it does is anything but easy. Yes, the deeper identities and deeper solidarities elicited by religion sometimes make possible saintly good. But the very same deeper identities and deeper solidarities can also sometimes be mobilized on behalf of political evil.

Religion builds solidarities that often help people cope with the challenges of life, and sometimes even makes them better citizens. But naturally the question of whether religion contributes to useful solidarities is different from the question of the truth of what believers believe. My own fundamental problem with religion is more on the intellectual side than on the moral side. For me, the fundamental issue is what it does to human dignity to believe things that are unworthy of belief.

We’ve known for several centuries, and certainly since Darwin, that human beings – with their hopes for salvation and their fears of a death that is death and nothing else – are not the centre of some cosmic drama; and that God, if there is one, has no reason to take a special interest in the animal species that happens to have prevailed on this obscure planet. Don’t we simply embarrass ourselves by inflating our own importance to the level of objects of divine care and attention? It seems to me that, in the case of the three Abrahamic faiths, taking these religions seriously requires actually believing that (to take them in chronological order) there will be a Jewish Messiah, that Christ is the Redeemer of humanity’s sins, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. But believing these articles of faith requires in turn the belief that this small planet of ours figures fairly importantly within a larger divine scheme. Is it intellectually credible, or intellectually respectable, to believe that in the post-Copernican, post-Darwinian world that we now inhabit? Even if everything connected with religion increased the stock of good in the world (which again is far from being a plausible view), wouldn’t there still be something humanly demeaning in needing to inject more meaning into the world than is really there in order to sustain a meaningful life?

I don’t think these are rhetorical questions. They are real questions that one is obliged to reflect on in pondering the proper role of religion in human life. No one disputes that life is full of mystery, and that with respect to the mysteries of birth, existence and death, there seems to be an ineliminable yearning to share in an apprehension of a meaning deeper than science will ever be able to supply. But as rational or cognitive beings, we understand – better than the purveyors of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Qur’an were able to understand – that we live on a minute planet (an infinitesimal speck, really) in an unfathomably large universe, and it’s just not terribly plausible that human doings have the cosmic importance that these scriptures say they do. Furthermore, as moral beings, we can see quite clearly the historical reality that the world religions have caused at least as much havoc and destruction as they have moral good. As for God, it’s hard to see how it helps at all to abate the mysteries of existence that are apparent to all of us by simply invoking another mystery.

I can’t say I fully understand why so many people feel such a strong gravitational pull toward religion. But let’s face it, there are a thousand things I don’t understand about human nature. I don’t understand why people watch golf on television. I don’t understand why people vote for political parties representing the view that minimization of taxation is the highest purpose in political life. I don’t understand why people are interested in buying Rolex watches for $43,000. I don’t understand why people drive somewhere within walking distance when they can just as easily walk. And so on. Yet the reality is that these things are a part of how people define their lives, whether it makes sense to me or not. Nor is it particularly clear that I need to come to an understanding of these aspects of the inscrutable (to me) nature of human beings.

When religion becomes a problem

What matters, politically speaking, is not the reasonableness of what believers believe but rather how those beliefs affect our civic relationships – how we stand toward one another as citizens. For religion doesn’t just mean private belief. Religion commonly involves structures of churchly or priestly power and authority, and often asserts substantial political claims. Theocracy is the politicization of religion, which is why a liberal-secular society is not antireligious per se but is necessarily antitheocratic.

Admittedly, structures of clerical power are sometimes exercised for positive civic purposes. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is an absolutely unchallengeable case of religion being mobilized for noble and worthy civic ends. Another shining example of politically beneficial clerical authority is the civic heroism of Buddhist monks marching in protest against the rule of Burmese generals. But quite often, that same power is exercised for purposes that are hardly benign. It suffices to glance around the world today. Think of the religiously sanctioned oppression of homosexuals in Africa, the influence of Serbian Orthodox priests during the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s, religious extremism in Israel and Palestine, theocratic politics in Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan (a veritable sinkhole of ignominy and grief), the religious right in the United States. Think of countless other places where clerical political power is being abused – that is, helping to mobilize fear, hatred and cruelty. It is a common story, to the extent that it would be absurd to assert that the norm is for religious authorities to deploy their power and authority for worthy or even merely benign purposes.

Why do we pride ourselves on living in a secular society? We inhabit a society where women won’t be arrested or perhaps lashed for wearing the wrong clothes or listening to the wrong music; where no one will be accused of blasphemy or heresy; where one group of religionists won’t suffer pogroms at the hands of, or have their villages razed by, some other group of religionists (as apparently happens on a regular basis, for instance, in Nigeria); where gender equality won’t be put out of reach by people appealing to sacred scriptures; and so on. In short, we live in a society where religion is largely privatized, where liberty of individual judgement is vastly expanded, and where religion’s power of policing sexuality – historically, one of the chief sources, surely, of its social and political power – is dramatically curtailed. How can we consider this anything other than a political achievement of very large proportions?

Nor can it be assumed that theocratic politics are not a possibility even in the modern West. I’ve lived in two societies (Ireland and pre–Quiet Revolution Quebec) where, within living memory, politics was a priest-infested business. Neither of them was a happy experience. As Theodor Herzl said in trying to imagine what a Jewish state ought to look like, priests should be confined to their temples in the same way that soldiers should be confined to their barracks. The parallel Herzl drew impresses itself on us all the more vividly when we think again of present-day Egypt, where a military-dominated regime was replaced for one year by a theocratic regime, only to be deposed once again by the military. In short, as citizens we share a substantial common good in sparing ourselves the distortion of political life associated with theocracy, whether Islamic, Hindu, Christian or Jewish – and contemporary political life has given us samples of all four.

Interpretations of the world religions that are consonant with liberal and democratic citizenship do not pose a problem for political life. The problem is illiberal religion, especially versions of illiberal religion with political ambitions. And religions that ground nonliberal or antiliberal views of life cannot be simply legislated away; they need to be submitted to a process of reciprocal democratic engagement. Yet the exercise of comparing the present-day state of liberalized religion (e.g., Anglicanism in England) and that of illiberal religion (e.g., Anglicanism in Africa), and asking which is vibrant and which is declining, certainly gives one pause. It may well be, after all, that what typically elicits religious commitment is not the beliefs (about creation, salvation, the nature of the divinity and so on) but simply the longing for moral direction. That is, people seek a larger framework that instructs them in fairly clear terms about how to conduct themselves regarding sexual issues, family norms and social obligations more generally. If this thesis is true (or true in significant measure) then it would go a long way toward explaining why it is precisely illiberal religions (e.g., Pentecostalism, Mormonism and the more reactionary versions of Islam) that seem today to be capturing ever-larger “market share” among the religions on offer.

The liberal state doesn’t try to police the tendency of people to adopt a whole range of dubious beliefs. If people want to believe in astrology, let them believe in astrology. Belief in astrology starts becoming a political problem if large numbers of people start organizing themselves politically on behalf of that belief, to bully or arm-twist nonbelievers and to attempt to make structures of authority within this group of believers binding on the whole society. Politically speaking, a secular society is one where religious authorities have no special clout, and insofar as clerics participate in political debate (which is fully legitimate), it’s on the basis of citizen to citizen rather than shepherd to sheep (that is, minister to those who are ministered to, or pastor to recipients of pastoral care). Secularism in this sense has become the norm in Western liberal societies, and we should not allow ourselves to become so fearful of appearing Eurocentric that we hesitate to affirm that norm as normatively (that is, universally) justified.

The attractions of jihad

It’s often claimed that the way to make sense of the threatening jihadi ideologies we now see in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East is on the basis of a “root causes” analysis – that is, in terms of the grievances against the West felt by the poor and marginalized in the Islamic world. But does such a mode of analysis penetrate deeply enough into the positive attraction exerted by these ideologies (which evidently have the troubling capacity to draw into their orbit individuals who are middle-class and citizens of prosperous and influential societies such as our own)?

No doubt, the vast majority of Muslims are as repelled by the crimes of the Islamic State as non-Muslims are. But one of the things that distinguishes Islam as a world religion is its historical emergence coincident with the conquest of a world empire spread by the power of the sword. It would be strange if this wasn’t at least part of the allure drawing young middle-class men from Timmins and Calgary (many of them converts to Islam) to martyr themselves on behalf of the cause of medieval piety. The soldiers of the new caliphate, starting with their self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aspire to an empire stretching from Morocco to India, and it is crucial to their conception of their own mission that this is an intended reclamation of past glory, not merely a newly invented ideological vision.

Unlike Al Qaeda, the Islamic State is not just a furtive gang of terrorists but an appreciable army of conquest on the march (hence closer to earning the label of “Islamofascism” controversially applied by writers like Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis to an earlier generation of jihadi Islam). Submissive piety represents one ideal of life outside the liberal horizon and the lust for glory represents another. Arguably, this ideological movement potently combines both. It remains to be seen how far the caliphate will march, or how long it will endure (especially now that there is an international coalition committed to engaging it militarily). But in the meantime, this odious theocracy has at least done us the service of reminding all of us that there will probably always be human beings for whom modernity presents itself as inherently slavish and degrading.

It’s so easy to take for granted that life within liberal post-Enlightenment horizons is self-evidently more attractive than the alternatives. Yet our own welfare and security may hang on whether we’re able to make progress in penetrating the riddle of the jihadis. That’s precisely why we need especially to exert ourselves to keep asking the questions that liberals rarely ask: Why do there continue to be human beings for whom a society geared toward treating its citizens simply according to a standard of decency and mutual respect isn’t good enough? And why are theocratic enemies of liberal society so convinced that a society oriented to secular freedom and equality fundamentally impoverishes human beings? In other words, what human longings are left unfulfilled in liberal society?