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Where's Mao When You Really Need Him?

The New Age Racket and the Left

by JUSTIN E.H. SMITH

This weekend I’m heading down to New York to do what I can to topple the regime in power as they brazenly exploit my spiritual hometown for the backdrop to the Republican National Convention. With the legality of the United for Peace and Justice demonstration still very much in question, and massive arrests thus likely (if legal assembly is not possible, the only other option is the illegal kind), I fear my next missive to Counterpunch may be a rather somber one. With this in mind, I thought it appropriate to use the opportunity to write on something at least superficially frivolous while the times still, if barely, permit it. My love life struck me as a good theme.

I went on a date recently. It was all going smoothly. There was more than a hint of mutual attaction. She was of an appropriate age and had gone to all the right schools. So had I. We both knew how to use our silverware. As if all this weren’t enough, she had even given some indications that we were politically compatible (I’ll be honest, I’m for legalizing just about everything the social conservatives fear, and collectivizing just about everything the fiscal conservatives own). Then she went and asked me what my sign was. Damn, I thought, why is there always something?

But enough about me. Let’s get to the issues. I would like to discuss that movement often covered by the umbrella term ‘New Age’, and to argue, specifically, that New Agers should be ashamed of themselves, for abandoning all concern with those goals that have traditionally served as the driving force of progressive politics, like social justice, equality, the end of oppression, etc., and allowing -nay, aiding- the cynical and opportunistic power-mongers to make the world as disappointing a place as it currently is.

Before this polemic begins in earnest, perhaps it will be best to sketch out a definition of the concept that concerns us. By ‘New Age’ I mean to refer to any world-view that:

1. is decidedly postmodern, in that it picks and chooses from vastly older traditions those features it finds useful;

2. is sloppily multiculturalist, in that it levels out and denies legitimate distinctions between the traditions from which it borrows;

3. is individualistic, in that it takes spirituality to be a ‘quest’, and sees the ultimate end of this quest as self-fulfillment (however much it may borrow from traditions that emphasize self-overcoming or dissolution of the ego, even at times insisting that it shares this goal);

4. is nostalgic, in that it maintains that with the rise of modernity, humanity experienced the loss of a distinctly ‘spiritual’ disposition, in contrast with the rational disposition;

5. in large part as a consequence of its suspicion of rationality, is also uncritical as a matter of principle;

6. portrays itself as apolitical, or, better, as tapping into a reality so profound that any explanation of it in terms of the social, economic, and historical plights of its adherents can be safely dismissed as irrelevant.

I propose, in contrast to the last of these, that the New Age movement can only be understood politically. In an atmosphere, moreover, in which one rarely come across a self-identified anarchist, socialist, environmentalist, or progressive who will not also willingly identify his or her star sign and proceed to expatiate on the finer details this totemic affiliation reveals about his or her personality, I must add that it is exceedingly urgent that we come to a political understanding of how it has come to this, and then proceed to purge this disgraceful tendency utterly from our ranks, either through re-education or, for the intractable, banishment.

That’s right. It’s time for all of us who consider ourselves even mildly progressive to get at least a little bit Maoist on the occultists’ asses, confident in the singular correctness of the scientific world-view, and intolerant of ‘difference’ when all this manages to give us is muddle-headed obscurantism.

It is not for nothing that I bring up Mao here. For New Ageism represents but one of the two possible outcomes of the 1960s. The other possible outcome, unflinching revolution against the status quo in society and its consequent radical transformation, fizzled out in the first decade of the 1970s, as all those Aquarians who, around 1967, joined up for the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, quickly realized they did not want to go all that far in pushing the dawning of a new age after all, by, say, joining violent revolutionary groups like the Weathermen and Black Panthers in the US, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, and the Red Brigade in France, but were unable to come up with any more creative, non-violent ways of transforming society. The age of Aquarius, in short, won out over the dictatorship of the proletariat. Santa Cruz emerged victorious over Beijing. But why, precisely, crystals? Why this feel-good Buddhism lite hocked by the Dalai Lama? Why the insistence from just about every whitebread American you meet that they have a bit of Native American blood, and thus have some privileged insight into animals, or dreams, or life and death? New Age, in the particular form it came to have in the 1970s, was the result of the confluence of two distinct trends extending back to the 19th century. One was the proliferation of curiosity about paranormal phenomena, such as animal magnetism, telepathy, and communication with the dead, that so fascinated Victorian parlor company. Early on, some of these programs of investigation were legitimate, and it is only because they were pursued that we have been able to determine as much as we have (and we’ve only just begun) about the boundary between sane and meaningful discourse on the one hand and bullshit on the other. But for the most part, they drew the attention they did because the positive results that establishment science is able to come up with are generally quite dull, and certainly won’t do as entertainment.

The other important development that contributed to the emergence of New Age was anthropology, which, while originally a mere academic apologia for the domination of the Europeans over the rest, by the mid-20th century had come around to the laudable view that cultures that emerged outside of the bounds of Christendom all, without exception, managed to come up with perfectly adequate, nuanced, and respect-worthy ways of dealing with the natural world and their human neighbors, and all without any paternalistic assistance from colonial overlords.

In short, the Age of Aquarius did not pop out of nowhere. Aleister Crowley, Madame Blavatsky, and Bronislaw Malinowski all played their parts, and in an era when, as the popular narrative (of American history anyway) has it, the vast majority of people were still good, simple, rule-following, God-fearing folk.

But all of this is old hat. What has not been sufficiently emphasized, in my view, is the way in which the victory of the Age of Aquarius over the dictatorship of the proletariat, New Age over revolutionism, was easily, happily, accommodated by those in power. Go ahead, transform yourselves. Absorb all the energy you can from that crystal around your neck. Just don’t try to change the world, or take control of the means of production, and we won’t seek to stamp you out. While its adepts see it as an ‘elevation’ or ‘liberation’, in fact New Age is a retreat and a capitulation.

Indeed, self-fulfillment is not just easily accommodated within the system against which the counterculture initially set itself up in opposition. It is a positive goldmine. Browse at an airport bookstore on a stopover. Look at the titles on the New York Times bestseller list. It would take a naïveté I can’t even begin to comprehend to fail to notice that spirituality -what passes for Eastern spirituality, in particular- is by now a commodity like any other. This phenomenon is now being treated by a very small number of social scientists. The French sociologist Raphaël Liogier, for instance, in his Bouddhisme mondialisé: une perspective sociologique sur la globalisation du religieux (Ellipses, 2004; sorry, Republicans, there’s no translation yet), shows how the globalization and commodification of this religion promotes an odd combination of a gratifying sense of planetary citizenship with the same sort of ego-inflating, success-driven advice one finds in those troubling self-help/business paperbacks that sell so well, like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

But why call it Buddhism, if it’s all made up anyway? Why not impose the New Age ethos on our own, autochthonous Christianity? Again, it will help to recall two of the features of New Agery listed above: its sloppy multiculturalism, and its knee-jerk suspicion of whatever is ‘Western’ (which, Ethiopian and Armenian Orthodoxy, Latin American Liberation Theology, etc., notwithstanding, for some reason includes Christianity), as being too ‘rational’ and thus insufficiently ‘spiritual’.

No, to find any authentic spiritual sentiment, or at least to market a product with the promise of authentic spiritual transformation, we must climb the Himalayas, or at least imagine ourselves on such a journey while flying to a meeting at the Kansas City branch office. The Dalai Lama serves as the best example of this tendency, and is likely also the best-selling product the New Age industry has yet put on the market. This is particularly troubling when we consider the fact that the Dalai Lama is, among other things, a political leader, whose movement has been conferred a legitimacy beyond scrutiny simply in virtue of his purported holiness.

What is so worthy about the Tibetan cause? How many if its supporters can really say? I’m not saying that it is not a worthy cause; many movements for national liberation are. But what about the Basque Country, Corsica, and Turkish Kurdistan? Nobody believes that continued occupation of these national homelands involves any sort of spiritual injustice, only the mundane political kind. This is all it should take, of course, to earn the global community’s opprobrium, yet Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys remain deathly silent, for these other national-liberation struggles lack a leader sporting a robe and claiming to be a divinity. Meanwhile, his Holiness jets around, meeting with world leaders and persuading them to support his cause- including George W. Bush, whom the Dalai Lama deemed to be, like himself, a ‘very spiritual person’. And even through all this, he is seen as being somehow beyond politics. This is the great illusion that sustains the New Age racket: that, because it is so spiritual, it is beyond all serious scrutiny. The proper comportment towards it is with bowed head, not open eyes.

At best, then, New Age is a lucrative side venture of neoliberalism, lining the pockets of those crafty enough to package spiritual fulfillment as a marketable product while leaving the spiritually hungry as unsated as ever. At worst, though, it is the expression of something altogether more sinister. Rootedness in the earth, a return to pure and authentic folkways, the embrace of irrationalism, the conviction that there is an authentic way of being beyond politics, the uncritical substitution of group- identification for self-knowledge, are all of them basic features of right- wing ideology.

Who is it that is out of touch with the earth, uprooted, and thus responsible for our own experience of ourselves as uprooted? The right- winger has a quick answer: it is those other people living uninvited among us, who have no homeland of their own and so have to dwell on our soil. Who or what is to blame for our loss of our old ways? The rise of the modern, rational state apparatus, with its love of science and deafness to poetry. Who or what has torn our people apart, dividing worker from baron, denying that we all share the same blood? The politics of class conflict.

In the case of Germany in the 1920s, it was the Jews who were the rootless intruders on German soil and threatened by their presence the German nation, since blood was seen as a sort of distillation out of the soil itself. France, and to some extent England, were seen as having imposed an overly rationalized state apparatus that was incompatible with the more deeply rooted, ‘poetic’ way of life of the Germans. And Marxism, a Jewish invention, was the wedge that separated different groups of Germans based on the otherwise insignificant criterion of class, and ignored the more important fact that, bourgeois or proletariat, Germans all have the same blood, distilled from the same soil, pumping through their veins.

Germany is its own case, of course, and it is always wise to remain skeptical of any invocation of the Nazis to denounce whatever tendency in contemporary society one finds displeasing. There is nothing in the vapid chatter about star signs that takes place in hair salons and on first dates throughout America that should cause us to worry about an imminent repetition of the Holocaust.

That said, it is also a safe bet that the diversion this vapid chatter allows, the flight into a domain that feels ‘profounder than politics’, has to no small extent contributed to the demise of a genuinely progressive political culture in the United States and facilitated the rise of an administration that, if superficially offensive to most New Agers (though not all: Ronald Reagan, after all, was both the godfather of neoconservatism and an enthusiastic consulter of oracles), at least shares with them the suspicion of good arguments, and the habit of claiming to derive authority from some je ne sais quoi beyond the bounds of human affairs. Most of all, the uncritical resignation required in order for one to get wrapped up in something like astrology is exactly the sort of disposition, when it takes hold of millions of otherwise dissenting minds, that best suits the purposes of a regime like the one currently in power.

The most common response that I get from horoscope readers when I express my displeasure at being asked for my star sign (after being told that I am boring, disagreeable, hyperrational, linear, Western, etc.), is that I’ve misunderstood, that the activity I’m being asked to play along in is mere ‘fun’. This exculpation is offered on the apparent assumption that whatever is fun (shooting bison from a moving train? sex with 16-year-olds?) is for that very reason removed from the bounds of moral consideration. I feel like responding: I did not presume you were doing this to torture yourself. What I’m confused about is not whether you find this fun or not, but why you find it fun.

As far as I can tell, the fun is thought to arise from the whimsy of suspending scrutiny, from making believe believe that these little blurbs about ‘Cancers’ or ‘Scorpios’ were produced by no one in particular (not to mention by someone about as thoughtful and caring as the composer of text in Sunday-paper coupon inserts), but rather issue forth spontaneously from the heavens, or nature, or, again, some reality more profound than the one the other sections of the newspaper report on. In other words, it is fun to suspend one’s understanding of one’s newspaper as being that third-rate, center-right, small-time local rag it is (and I can come up with comparable epithets for women’s magazines, or any other medium that deals in horoscopes), and treat it as revealed scripture.

But the problem is precisely that horoscopes are written by people, to wit, uninspired hacks, who then submit their humble work to publishers in media with vested ideological interests and advertisers to please. Why is this so easy to grasp when reading the editorial page, and so easy to forget when reading the ‘fun’ stuff? Or is it not so easy for most to grasp in the former case? Could it be that the most docile readership, the public best conditioned to allow the rise to power of fraudulent and cynical leaders, is the one that inadvertently permits its uncritical, just-for-fun reading of horoscopes to spill out of that frivolous section and into the ostensibly serious pages of those ever so un-fun features, like national and international news, the education supplement, or the business section? Could it be that the horoscope is not meant as a break from the seriousness of the ‘real’ sections of the newspaper, but indeed at its most effective serves as a sort of legend for how to read these other sections? Don’t question. Swallow. We’re here to amuse and comfort you (and, when useful, to worry you), not, dear reader, to promote some sort of awakening.

A similar point was made long ago by Theodor Adorno in his study of the horoscope section of the Los Angeles Times in the early 1950s, subsequently published under the title The Stars Down to Earth. He argued that horoscopes, if not in themselves permeated by fascist ideology, promote the sort of submission to abstract authority that paves the way for the rise of fascism. Earlier, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno had railed against the Nazi denunciation of psychoanalysis. Isn’t it revealing, he asked, of the true nature of this movement that it disdains with such ferocity the endeavor to know oneself? Fascism would prefer that its subjects engage in a more harmless variety of searching for self-knowledge, the kind that comes to nothing, motivates no overcoming of dependency upon paternal authority, whether the original, family variety, or the kind that’s invested in a Führer. Runes, anyone?

Many New Agers seem to feel not just secure in but altogether self-righteous about the benevolence of their world-view, pointing to the fact, for example, that it ‘celebrates’ the native cultures that global capitalism would plow over. To this one might respond, first of all, that celebration of native cultures is itself big business. Starbucks does it. So, in its rhetoric, does the Southeast Asian sex-tourism industry. Second, the simple fact that New Age is by its own lights multicultural and syncretistic is by no means a guarantee that it is safe from the accusation of being, at best, permissive of, and, at worst, itself an expression of, right-wing ideology. The Nazis, to return to a tried and true example, were no less obsessed with Indian spirituality than was George Harrison. Indeed, the Beatles and the other followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi were not trailblazers among Europeans, as the aging hippies still like to think; the sitar on Rubber Soul was not the first time in history a subcontinental flourish made its way into European arts and literature. This was only a very recent instance of a trend that extends back to the early 19th century, in Germany, and includes many of the Romantic authors, of whose ideas Nazism was not so much a distortion as a particularly bold strain.

There is another side of this story I hesitate to touch on. Bluntly though, it would be a gross omission to pretend to address the topic of New Agery while failing to acknowledge how strictly and predictably most conversations about star signs, etc., follow a script in which roles are determined according to gender. My date was not an aberration. Just try to imagine, for example, a heterosexual first date on which it is the man, and not the woman, who says: "I’m just not sure. I mean, Virgos and Geminis are usually a bad match." This is as gendered an exclamation as those heard on first dates in some long-gone era, wherein ladies would declare they needed to repair to the powder room to freshen up, and men would drop hints of their relative affluence.

Perhaps this is progress. Women can now enjoy their own ‘ways of knowing’, while men, at least in the early stages of a relationship, have no choice but to conjure a sustained look of sincere interest if they hope to get what they came for. Why, after all, should women be the only ones forced to sit politely as potential mates hold forth on topics the other cares nothing about? (There are, of course, a few men out there who relish reciting the finer points of ascendants and cusps, though one gets the feeling that what drives them has more to do with the admiring gaze of the bevy of women such a performance attracts than with the topic itself.)

Or is it progress? I, who will likely be accused of having no real insight when it comes to women’s ways of knowing, get a whiff in this accusation of a sexism much more insisdious than that suggested by my fondness for scientific method. For the tolerant smile of that hopeful lad on his first date conceals a shameful presumption, that the cute girl across the table isn’t really of the same species as he, that she, while perhaps capable of communicating in her own way, like whales with their alien songs, cannot reasonably be expected to converse with a full-fledged human in his language, the one that captures the world as it is.

This presumption is shameful because (at risk of sounding too much like an old-school humanist) we are only dealing with one species here, and there is in fact no such thing as a woman’s way of knowing. There are just different ways for human beings to respond to different social exigencies. In the 1920s and ’30s, defeated and hopeless, Germans imagined themselves superior to their vanquishers by contrasting their own deep-rooted and romantic national identity with the hyperrational efficiency of the French. (Indeed, it is a vivid indication of the success of denazification in German culture that just 60 years later it is they themselves who are stereotyped as excessively orderly and punctual.) In the 1970s, those hippies who discovered they didn’t quite have the energy or -dare I say it?- the courage for revolution, found it convenient to recast their would-be political opposition in the harmless language of self-discovery, of journeying within, in a way that was perhaps not comprehended by their rational, scientific, regulated (etc.) society, but also did not pose any threat to this society. Today, some women -many of whom believe themselves to be politically progressive- find it easier to pretend that they belong to a different species, one that is more naturally and spontaneously connected to nature, one that is rooted in some mythical primordial era of cosmic harmony, than to face up to and combat masculine domination. Something is amiss, of course, when men enjoy the full responsibility for the task of defining what it is to be human, and thus ensure that by definition women will always fall somewhat short of the mark. The answer, though, is not to secede, but to demand representation.

New Age is an imagined, personal secession. It is fantasy, though this is not in itself an indictment. Theatre is fantasy too, and I have no interest in stamping it out. But New Age is a sorry sort of fantasy, for it imagines itself to be a form of resistance, but is only able to take hold in history when true resistance proves too difficult to sustain.

But how, you may still be wondering, did the date end up? I refused to reveal my sign, but she somehow already knew my birthdate, and so revealed it for me. I am, she told me, a Leo. Leos, she insisted, are always stubborn, self-assured, and intolerant of people who see things differently than they do. The entire harangue that ensued from my side of the table about the emptiness, the wastefulness, the disgrace of astrology only served for her as yet more confirmation of its accuracy! Clearly, communication would prove impossible. The date ended poorly. No surprise, she might be telling herself now. Leos and Capricorns are a totally bad match.

Justin E. H. Smith teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal. He can be reached at: justismi@alcor.concordia.ca