I found myself reading an open letter from that eminent purveyor of contemporary occult literature, Peter Grey. “The Latest Witch Hunt”, written earlier this year, was a response to the online, Left leaning of the occult on Twitter, and the critical response Grey was given for their appearance on Gordon White’s Rune Soup. The reasons for this are an over-all negative opinion of White for his stances on Covid and Grey not taking the knee in the face of the online left’s outrage. Given Gordon’s particular stances at this point, maybe not the grand statement he thinks it is, but that’s another story. The letter as a whole doesn’t say anything particularly controversial in the mercurial world of leftists arguing about other supposed leftists, and as I lay on my cozy couch in the Western imperial center, my goal is not to join in the cartoon smoke cloud of fists. Instead, I will sneak out of the brawl and give a knowing wink to all the kids at home. Bugs Bunny be my god.
What drove me from my stupor of post-labor decompression was not Grey’s careful presentation of identity politics as the puritanical wave of a new McCarthyism, a tactic of division by corporate powers. It is their rallying calls of courage by the “Witchcraft” that “the way must be won.” More specifically, it was something written as background to Grey’s own politics.
“I hold a bachelor’s degree in political science, where I pursued my utopian dreams for society through a Marxist class-based analysis. It became clear to me that revolutionary socialism was not the answer, and was either unrealistic or unfolded into new forms of tyranny. I turned to the pursuit of magic.”
It wasn’t a shocking statement for me to read the first few times, but after taking residence in my head for a few days it became impossible to ignore. Why would someone dissatisfied with the concept of Socialist Revolution turn to magic?
I was reminded of a contemporary apotheosis of political opinion, and by that I mean a meme. It was simple enough, the Pooh sitting format, starting with the cringe thought of “lol magic ain’t real”, moved to the somewhat enlightened opinion of “Witchcraft is fun and has potential to create change in one’s life” before jumping to an image of a Lovecraftian Pooh entity with the right’s favorite stereotype, a wall of text from a leftist.
“Witchcraft is revolutionary in a world where egregores devour life from minorities and the proletariat. Within the witch a power emerges that produce thought forms that negate hegemony from below. Capitalism’s egregores must fall and insurrectionary witches are attacking them from all dimensions.”
While I don’t think Peter Grey, or anyone capable of not believing their own BS, would be quite as hyperbolic and fanciful as this, I think this meme demonstrates the issue quite succinctly; many people view the practice of magic as an act of rebellion capable of bringing about political change in post-modernity.
The subversive character of magic and the occult has often attracted those with aspirations, or at least ideals, of major political change. The roots of Socialism itself contain a spiritual core that is often lost after the development of Marxism becomes the central tenet that all further leftist development would be based upon, whether in embracing and refinement or rejection and criticism. Major occult figures like Eliphas Levi were noted Socialists at one point or another, and early socialist figures like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier had a clear spiritual or religious character in their works. The occult revival of the 60’s is notable in that virtually all its major players were also activists heavily critical of the current order of the world regardless of their particular strands of occult practice, and more often than not of a clear left-of-center persuasion. The “New Left” of the 60s and 70s had its share of spooky woo woo, but this lineage of magic that threads its way through the left does not answer the question as to why someone educated thoroughly in the Marxist tradition would return to magic in the face of the historic failure of the left’s revolutionary attempts, or why people today would see magic and spirituality as holding a revolutionary character. The answer to that question is a lot easier than historical analysis, and touches on the issues of online political discourse that Grey was highlighting.
What attracts anyone to magic? The pluralistic would insist on a wide and varied net of possible reasons, but it can be reduced to two answers; People feel disempowered and ignorant, and people live in a world devoid of meaning. The Marxists and Anarchists among us will be quick to blame Capitalism, and they would be, if only partially, correct; but the reason for these two motivations isn’t important for the moment. What is important is that these dispositions are the same motivating factors that would drive one to radical political beliefs. Or drinking. Or pilates. If my point seems to be far out in the mist still, let me say it plainly; Magic has become escapism.
Escapism has a naturally negative connotation. We don’t like the idea that we are attempting to escape anything in life, but it is in many ways a necessary coping mechanism. Disassociating ourselves from the boredom, stress and anxiety of every day life must be done to maintain one’s self at least part of the time, and the only ones who would tell you otherwise are those espousing enlightenment or romanticizing the struggle of existence, both other forms of escapism in the basic sense of trying to escape from the bad feels of life. While Freud writes of escapism, “[T]hey cannot subsist on the scanty satisfaction they can extort from reality.”, John L. Longway argues in “The Rationality of Escapism and Self-Deception” that “entrenched escapism is pragmatically irrational as well, unless it compensates for other irrationalities elsewhere in a person, as, for instance, when a person must avoid certain facts to avoid succumbing irrationally to despair, or unless it compensates for the effects of an environment in which it is otherwise impossible for an optimally functioning person to survive emotionally.”
Escapism becomes a problem when it is maladapted and detrimental to one being a functional person, not when it actually allows for someone to function. Escapism in the contemporary age certainly has some place, whether in the entrenched escapism and self-deception that Longway is referring to or the temporary relief of binging the weird side of YouTube to forget about having to go to work tomorrow or fixing your washing machine that’s been out all week. That magic has become another one of these mechanisms to allow the individual to maintain themselves in the contemporary age isn’t surprising, but it presents a possibly unique problem.
The issue is that, as anyone who is reading this most likely will attest, magic is real and works, something I will not argue despite the nuance needed for any statement of that character. Surely someone in the 21st century is doing magic and not just using it as the most convoluted of survival tactics. So what prevents magic from being the supposed key to solving global oppression and alienation, aside from any bad faith implications that many people have no real practice, no real mystic belief or ability? The relation of those who would see magic as a political praxis to the Situationist International is possibly the best comparison. In a quote that parallels our memetic starting point, Guy Debord wrote;
“To make the World a sensuous extension of man rather than have man remain an instrument of an alien world, is the goal of the Situationist Revolution. For us the reconstruction of Life and the rebuilding of the World are one and the same desire. To achieve this the tactics of subversion have to be extended from schools, factories, universities, to confront the Spectacle directly. Rapid transport systems, shopping centers, museums, as well as the various new forms of culture and the Media, must be considered as targets for scandalous activity.”
A noble goal, just as the destruction of the egregores of Capitalism, but one that got similar results; The Situationist International were influential on the insurrections of France in May of 68, and after the failure of those events to bring about any sort of revolution, they disbanded. The Situationist International, while a specific organized group, is an adequate microcosm of the left-leaning, politically minded in the occult community and their approach to praxis. For them, Magic is the field of artists, creatives, academics, and those who do not, in their self-perception at least, identify with the spectacle of the modern world and are seeking to break their alienation and the alienation of others by radically undermining and recreating that reality. Magic is perhaps best recognized as a middle class, educated, dare I say, bourgeois practice. While many of us who consider ourselves proletarians to the bone might feel insulted by such a notion, I ask you to take a quick tally of the popular practices of the Western Esoteric tradition and their preservers. The history of magic is the history of the academic cataloging of practices stomped out of conquered cultures and degraded religions. The proliferation of the occult in post modernity through the internet is no different, and more of a testament to how thoroughly the working class maintains the borugois ideology. But none of that matters if the working class could actually effect change through magic, which shouldn’t be an issue in theory. The failure of magic as praxis rests on its inability to be a large scale movement that individuals may join to bring about the destruction of the world that exists today.
At best, we have a magical vanguard, attempting to use their influence and power to aid in the directing of society, perhaps in the most “spooky action at a distance” way they could, to toss off its chains. (A notable example of this is the Knights of Chaos and their work to end the war in Ukraine by turning Vladimir Putin’s support against him via a magical operation.)
At worst, we have a bunch of magicians with Great Man theories of history thinking they’re going to beat Coca Cola with their servitors. No, actually, at worst we have terminally online magic memery becoming its own Spectacle, with easily digestible memes about witchcraft getting a like to assure both parties that magic will save the day. It is, as I said before, an escape from the real struggle that is political action by the disenfranchised and alienated in the contemporary age, which by necessity requires us to overcome our atomization and organize in order to be effective. The lone individual and their work is important, and to say there has never been a “Great Man” through which history has made its will manifestation is foolish. But it would be perhaps more foolish to suggest that any of the current players in the occult are going to suddenly appear on a white horse and save the world.
This is the same issue present in the current “witch hunt” Peter Grey has called to our attention. The battle against “occult fascism” is not only a manifestation of the current discourse’s need for division and purity; it’s an exercise in false political action. That we keep Fascism out of our communities, that we don’t allow their ideas to be normalized in our spaces, is important only in that it protects our niche of a niche of a social clique. This is great, I don’t like Nazis at my bars. But I understand that telling Nazi Punks to Fuck off doesn’t solve any issue beyond keeping them away from me and my friends. The Dead Kennedys certainly didn’t stop Nazi Punks from being a thing in the 80’s with a catchy tune to toss them out on their ears at shows. Its effect on the greater social issues that have brought Fascism and Ethnocentricism to a point not seen since before the Second World War is negligible. It can be justified by the belief that magic (read as; the magical community) is too influential and too powerful to allow those ideas to creep in, and that belief stems from nothing else but a deep-seated bias of Magic being the ultimate force of reality, which of course those in the magic community would be forced to take in as an aspect of entrenched escapism in the face of their alienation and disempowered state. People convinced that 9/11 was a Satanic ritual and the hidden messages of our black-cloaked secret chief’s horrid misdeeds being revealed daily in mass media aren’t very different.
Even if we are to accept the belief that magic is a powerful force capable of altering the political landscape, we are faced with more issues. If we abscribe Magick to the machinations of those in power, we would be hard pressed to say that small groups of magic folks will be enough to overturn the black magic of the modern world. If we instead view those in power as demiurgic lords of the material conditions of reality and magic as a tool for the oppressed, we face the former issues of our isolation from both ourselves and society at large stopping the proliferation of magic as a path of the struggles of society. More than anything, it amounts to putting our energy into another proxy for legitimate political action while giving us self-satisfaction. Again, if the World Spirit is going to take form through the occult world, it probably won’t be an internet wizard. Stranger things have happened, but I’m not holding my breath.
The other prong of my argument is the lack of meaning inherent in the Secular age we inhabit. The disenchantment of the world has brought a resurgence of religious sentiments, but at the loss of the totalizing values and shared views that made religion a central organizing force for societies. Whether we take that as a net positive or a negative is irrelevant; it is enough to say that we inhabit a world that no longer has a place for gods and devils but for the all-too human drive to proselytize our values. Why? Because short of secular values, there is no place for meaning. The nihilism of our scientific, rational and materialist culture has left us bereft. For most people, the only choices are angst at the meaninglessness of existence, or the absurdity of building universal values out of normative ones. Those that come to magic often hope to find a firm ground on which a diamond of meaning can be recovered. The problem that arises from this is the same that comes with discussing how magic functions; Unverified personal gnosis is no more a basis for meaning than group consensus. The subjective experience of the individual is not immune to the influence of culture and society, and the fact that many magicians maintain the same view of politics and society that they held before they picked up a grimoire does not bode well for magic’s ability to give us an insight into truth. That many of those who turned to radical politics turned to magic in turn gives us an even bleaker picture. If the experience and power of a singular figure could be enough, she would quickly gain followers and make her cult, and most of us here would roll our eyes. “History only moves by the light of genius”, but History, and the masses, must move.
What is to be done? The historical failures of the Socialist project from virtually all angles is known. The failures of Anarchism and Social Democracy, ala Eduard Bernstein are not much better; and unless I have missed the guillotines, magic has not brought us revolution by its existence either. So, if we are to, as Peter Grey suggests, win the way as members of the craft, what can we do?
If the answer is to be found in Jack Parsons, whose “We Are The Witchcraft” is central to Grey’s situation and letter, I can’t say I am impressed on first glance.
“We are the oldest organization in the world. When man was born, we were….
…All organizations have known us, no organization is of us; when there is too much organization we depart. We are on the side of man, of life, and of the individual. Therefore we are against religion, morality and government. Therefore our name is Lucifer. We are on the side of freedom, of love, of joy and laughter and divine drunkenness. Therefore our name is Babalon”
Beautiful prose, but that’s all. If the turn from Socialism to magic is simply to get rid of having the read dry and boring Marx and Engels, sure, I see the appeal, but is there any substance here? Is the Hidden Brotherhood of Mankind going to stop the oncoming climate catastrophe? Is our natural state of Individualist Freedom going to protect us from the tanks? We no longer live in the world Jack Parsons wrote in, denouncing Social Security and corrupt deals with Franco’s Spain, and his poetic praise of the wonder and terror of humans at the gods of nature will not save us from the man made gods who dominate our little blue sphere. If the way is to be won, it won’t be found in the pretty sentiments of our power as members of the secret handshake club, as amorphous as it may be. Yet something remains hidden here of value for us.
The importance of magic in political action isn’t that it has, and you may pardon me for using such a dirty word, an objective power to bring about material changes in the political realm. It may, nay, it does. But what I’m interested in is far more subtle; Magic discloses a world.
Martin Heidegger is philosophy’s dirty secret. A Nazi party member who claimed he had no option but to join for the sake of the university and science, something contradicted by many other statements and his own actions. The publishing of his personal journals put to bed any argument that he was not, at the very least, clearly an antisemite. In addition, he was an opportunist and a snake willing to frame what he had to say in a way that appealed to those he thought would be worth sucking up to. Heidegger is terrible, and if he wasn’t such an important figure in 20th and 21st century thought his name could be forgotten to history without a single tear shed. As it stands, he was a brilliant thinker and his work can’t be dispensed of. For many years now, the exegesis of his work by Hubert Dreyfus has been a corner stone of my understanding of the world, of philosophy and most importantly, of magic.
Along with Charles Spinosa, Dreyfus writes on Heidegger’s notion of world disclosure,
“According to Heidegger our nature is to be world disclosers. That is, by means of our equipment and coordinated practices we human beings open coherent, distinct contexts or worlds in which we perceive, feel, act, and think.”
Magic as a practice allows for the disclosure of possibilities and potentials that do not exist in a clear and readily available way in our modernized, technological world. Not a discovery of a deeper hidden truth underlying an illusory reality, but a revelation of things hidden in the reality we have always existed in. Not a creation from nothing or the ashes of the old world, but possibilities that can be realized in the world we all exist in together at this moment. Magic is capable of revealing a new world.
When Parsons writes,
“We sang the first hunting songs, we made the
first crops to grow; when man stood naked before the Powers that made him, we sang the
first chant of terror and wonder.“
You may have a taste of what it means to disclose a world.
This was the goal of the Situationists in many ways, and their failure should serve as a warning for the pitfalls of attempting such a daring act. If we are to find a way forward, magic is indispensable, but only if we do not reduce it to pure escapism, to a substitute for action, or to aesthetics. Imbuing the Capitalist class with egregores does nothing if doing so doesn’t empower any material change. Creating spaces for creativity in the face of a mechanical society does nothing if it only inspires more commodities and exploitation. The affirmation of the spiritual goodness of the world, or the Gnostic evil of it, does nothing if it becomes an excuse for inaction, or worse, pointless action.
For those that would aspire to using magic for political purposes, I would suggest focusing on the challenges of building and organization, and certainly outside the small pond of the occult world. Let magic reveal a world to others, and I don’t mean initiating your coworkers into your local “Rosicrucian” frat.
In closing, I’d like to quote from my own personal favorite writing by the man ultimately responsible for this article, Jack Parsons. Though he would certainly disagree with my ideas, he sums up my position well.
“Freedom is a two-edged sword of which one edge is liberty and the other, responsibility.”
If magic has emancipated you, given you liberty in this world filled with powers beyond our control, you have a responsibility to use it wisely.