Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”) quoted by Peterson, Jordan B. in Chapter 10 “Be Precise in Your Speech” 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 276). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
I think the falcon should probably make a break for it. My gyre is widening for a bit because I want to point at some threads and historical precedents. I don’t know what the thing is I am describing:
- It’s not a religion but there are religions (or quasi-religious) connected to it.
- It’s not an ideology because there’s no consistent political belief but it has ideological connections.
- It’s not a school of philosophy or a philosophical program but it resembles some.
- It’s not a branch of psychology but it draws on psychology.
- It’s not a branch of the occult but it shares borders and in some instances a kind occult materialism
- It’s not a pseudo-science as it lacks even a bad methodology.
It’s a recurring set of ideas about personal growth and control and willpower that when coupled with a kind of societal fear and a belief in the inevitability of hierarchies becomes particularly toxic.
I’ll pick an arbitrary point and call that the centre and see if it holds.
Norman Vincent Peale was the pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York from the 1930s until his death in the early 1990s. In that time he was friends with Richard Nixon, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, was a co-founder of the Horatio Alger Association (do follow that link) dedicated to rewarding Americans who had prospered in difficult circumstances. Among his congregation was the New York property developer Donald Trump and Peale officiated at Trump’s first marriage to Ivana Trump (this may seem trivial but in some timelines Trump ends up becoming President of the USA)* Adlai Stevenson is reported as saying of him that “I find Saint Paul appealing and Saint Peale appalling.”
Peale was ahead of his time in using media and selling himself as a brand. On-trend he teamed up with a psychotherapist (who had actually been a patient of Sigmund Freud himself) called Smiley Blanton to set up the grandly titled “American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry”. This attempt to graft mainstream American Protestantism to Freudianism would lead to a key document in our story: The Power of Positive Thinking.
Blanton would distance himself from Peale’s self-help book but nevertheless this weird child of post-war US capitalism, Protestantism and psychotherapy carried with it the mutated DNA of Freud’s discipline. The book would be a long last bestseller – perfectly crafted for an ambitious, go-getting, new decade of prosperity. A wall of positive thoughts that could overcome the chaos of negativity (the Cold War, segregation, social change) that might beset the ambitious middle managers of America.
The Power of Positive Thinking has nearly all the components:
- Post-war pro-capitalist liberal conservatism
- Self-affirmation (arguably self-hypnosis)
- Connections to psychotherapy
It’s not exactly wrong but not really right. It is sort of plausible – a modern, more empirical branch of psychology called positive psychology sounds superficially similar but is quite different.
Let’s widen the gyre and go further back in time. The delightfully named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Quimby ) was an American clockmaker who became a ‘mesmerist’ who used hypnosis to effect miracle cures in nineteenth-century America. He was an influence on Mary Baker Eddy who founded the Christian Science religion and also helped inspire the later ‘New Thought’ movement (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Thought ). The New Thought movement, an overtly religious movement that saw God as an instrument that could affect healing via positive thinking, visualisation and the law of attraction…
We’ve already met the Law of Attraction – it is the ‘secret’ in 2004 ‘The Secret’ and amounts to getting the things you think about. Think a lot about bad things and you’ll get bad things – so think happy things! Which to me sounds like that Twilight Zone episode…
…the law of attraction was first named by Helena ‘Madam’ Blavatsky in 1877. Blavatsky was an occultist and founder of ‘theosophy’ – another new religion. Russian by birth she eventually settled in America and gathered followers on the strength of her writing. Her writings tapped into the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century revived interest in ‘ancient wisdom’ and magic (see also William Butler Yeats above)…
Our gyre widens further but we’ll fly through the centre again first:
‘Trump read The Power of Positive Thinking when he was billions of dollars in debt, and it turned his life around. “My father was friends with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and I had read his famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking,” said Trump. “I refused to be sucked into negative thinking on any level, even when the indications weren’t great. That was a good lesson because I emerged on a very victorious level.”‘ http://www.wisebread.com/10-beloved-books-of-successful-millionaires
Speaking of Russian emigres…
In 1926 Russian Ayn Rand moved to the USA. With an initially successful career as a screenwriter, she began to expound in books her own philosophy based on self-interest. Rand herself denied that her Objectivism was similar to Nietzsche’s but even the fact that she needed to make denials implies many say some similarities. Objectivist websites dedicate many column inches to denying a relationship. Here’s a more balanced one:
Was Rand influenced by Nietzsche? To some extent, yes. In the 1930s, she called him her “favourite philosopher” and referred to Thus Spake Zarathustra as her “bible.” As late as 1942, Nietzsche quotes adorned the first pages of each section of her manuscript of The Fountainhead. But from her first encounter with his ideas, Rand knew that her ideas were fundamentally different from his.
Rand first read Nietzsche in 1920, at the age of fifteen, when a cousin told her that Nietzsche had beaten her to her ideas. “Naturally,” Rand recalled in a 1961 interview, “I was very curious to read him. And I started with Zarathustra, and my feelings were quite mixed. I very quickly saw that he hadn’t beat me to [my ideas], and that it wasn’t exactly my ideas; that it was not what I wanted to say, but I certainly was enthusiastic about the individualist part of it. I had not expected that there existed anybody who would go that far in praising the individual.” https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2017-spring/ayn-rand-contra-nietzsche/
Of Rand’s followers, Nathaniel Branden would prove to be an important one. He helped co-author Rand’s ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’ and was a friend & lover of Rand’s until they fell out in the late 1960s.
Branden’s second brush with fame was as a psychologist who pushed the concept of ‘self-esteem” as a single and major factor in general mental health and personal success. Ironically, this idea of people being overly concerned about self-esteem in public policy became associated with liberal politics, via people like Californian Democrat politician John Vasconcellos. Vasconcellos helped establish The National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Association_for_Self-Esteem ) – which included Branden as well as Gloria Steinem but also self-help guru Anthony Robbins.
‘Self-esteem’ is a classic example of how elements grounded in more solid psychology become over-generalised and turned into mental-health panaceas. The parallels with the way Wellness culture takes plausible findings of diet and turns them into things.you.must.do way beyond any research-based empirical findings is no accident. They both reflect attempts to take personal control in the face of impersonal fear.
Chaos, social-change, personal failure, stagnating career, romantic/sexual inadequacy negativity, ill-health, violent crime – reactions to these impersonal threats of the modern world can manifest as a subculture of personal control. The panaceas offered include gun-culture, wellness culture, self-help gurus, pick-up artistry – not all equally rightwing, not all equally nutty but sharing common elements that connect to an inherently right-leaning view that you as an individual need to take steps that will give you a personal advantage.
The alt-right is many things but we can squint and look it as another example of one of these things where the magic secret sauce is racism & misogyny backed up by race & gender pseudo-science. The connections with the other elements above aren’t ideological (but also not-not-ideological given aspects of the worldview they encourage) but also often direct (here’s Mike Cernovich’s juicing website http://fit-juice.com/ ). In particular, the flipside of the positive ways of making yourself better is the way these can all feed into irrational fears of contamination or invasion.
Extreme conspiracy-theory mongering fake-news media channel Infowars (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/InfoWars ) sells supplements to help your health and brain. It, and the alt-right in general, also feed paranoia about the impact of soybean-derived products (for a funny takedown of Infowars regular Paul Watson and his supplements see https://youtu.be/JOp28hQb_Xw ). It’s precious-bodily-fluids all over again.
There are multiple effects:
- Money making scams that finance alt-right personalities like Cernovich, Throne, Jones, Watson by exploiting vulnerable people.
- Recruitment of vulnerable people by offering advice and support (it’s not like all of this advice is uniformly terrible -even some of these supplements might help some individuals).
- A genuine desire for the alt-right as a movement to have their supporters to be fitter, healthier and more together than they might otherwise be.
- Exploiting multiple fears to feed into support for the ideology.
No, drinking kale juice isn’t bad for your health and it isn’t going to turn you into a crypto-fascist. Nor will body-building, self-affirmation exercises in front of a mirror each morning or even buying a gun for ‘home defence’. However, there are cultural elements and psychological elements that have connections with modes of thinking on the right.
Rushing back in time: Nietzsche, Freud, Jung – introspection, archetypes, a view of people as subconcious desires and drives. This is the heavy weight intellectual tradition, with a long academic history. Notably it is one in which conclusions are very difficult to refute. Nietszche, Freud and Jung are genuinely fascinating and important thinkers but their approach is one that seeks insights via introspection, and searching for significance and meaning in myth, dreams and the subconcious. It is an approach that lacks a capacity for falsification – and that can be OK in all sorts of domains of human inquiry (aesthetics, literary criticism). Where Freud and Jung in particular are problematic is the extent to which their work connects with a discipline that *is* intended to be more empirical – psychology.
Our widening gyre from here takes our increasingly giddy falcon over figures like Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavoj_%C5%BDi%C5%BEek ) a chap to complex to discuss here other than for me to point at the influence of thinkers like Jacques Lacan in particular (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Lacan ). Forgive me! These are just connections and seven-stages-of-kevin-bacon across multiple threads. I do not want to imply guilt by association but rather look at were these ideas come from and not just how they feed into what I call ‘the thing’ but why suddenly a rightwing troll may find something that may look like overly intellectual post-modernism appealling.
Oh, look – Jordan B Peterson. Peterson isn’t going to sell you a juicer or a health supplement but he’s adjacent to a world that will. He’s also adjacent to a world in which discussing mythic archetypes is considered a suitable way to examine how society works. He’s also peddling fear – literally of chaos (where via his archetypes chaos=women) and misogyny (ibid.). He’s also peddling self-improvement and personal growth but also anti-leftism and dominance hierarchies. He isn’t ‘the thing’ but he’s a prime example of what its made of.