Arcane Activists and Psychical Politics

Review of Erica Lagalisse' Occult Features of Anarchism

I will preface this review by saying I am not an initiate of occult, academic, or anarchist sects. Having consistently lacked the discipline to commit myself to rigorous studies of anything, it has been by way of fleeting interest that I have come to possess some knowledge of the aforementioned fields. I came to my brief studies of the occult while studying poetry, specifically the poems of W.B. Yeats, who was a member of the Golden Dawn. In researching the Golden Dawn and elements of occult symbolism in the poetry of Yeats, I began to read Rosicrucians, Christian mystics, and modern magicians. I was enthralled by the prospect of being in a world where love was the moving force and imagination knew no bounds, including those of physicality, and I considered that one way this could be achieved was by magical processes. When I became involved with an anarchist collective a few years later, I saw the conjunction of these two ways of thinking; both anarchists and occultists were (mostly) looking to build a better world for all. So I began to muse on the intersections of spirituality and activist actions and how they could be fused to facilitate a new world.It was thus with great enthusiasm that I approached my reading of Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples. Written by anthropologist and academic Erica Lagalisse, the work relates and examines the historical connections between early Renaissance spiritual sects and societies and the development of radical movements, with a focus on anarchism. The book is structured in two parts: the first, a series of historical essays, and the second, Lagalisse’s analysis. Occult Features of Anarchism is an academic work of anthropology and a critique of anarchism. Among Lagalisse’s other writings are “Good Politics:” Property, Intersectionality, and the Making of the Anarchist Self, which examines the co-option of “intersectionality” by radical leftists, who, Lagalisee argues, relegate intersectional identities to properties; the critical essay “‘Marginalizing Magdalena:’ Intersections of Gender and the Secular in Anarchoindigenist Solidarity Activism;” and “Marijuana Legalization as Frontier Capitalism.”

Lagalisse hones her historical analysis in on the traditions of the Freemasons and Illuminati, and begins by acknowledging the importance of the Hermetica (a series of gnostic texts purportedly authored by Hermes Trismigestus—that is, Hermes, the Greek god of communication, also known as Thoth in Ancient Egypt, or Mercury in Roman times). During the Renaissance, the Hermetica, as well as Islamic mathematical texts and Jewish mystical texts, were translated into Latin. The result was increased access to the writings, which informed the scholarly theories and works of Renaissance philosophers and scholars including Giordano Bruno and Nicolaus Copernicus. Lagalisse traces the influence of occult texts, the Hermetica in particular, through the Renaissance and to the Enlightenment, positing that “the ‘disenchantment’ we often hear about in relation to the European Enlightenment is but a tale” (29). Legalisse demonstrates in her historical account that occultism, by way of the aforementioned texts, informed the scientific developments of the time. The use of these texts by Renaissance scholars and scientists infused them with an air of legitimacy that continued into the Enlightenment (consider Newton’s alchemical endeavours, for example).

Lagalisse writes:

The Hermetica in particular is largely unrecognized as a fount of modern left politics, yet is an important thread running through it… The Hermetic tradition beholds a unified universe of which man is a microcosm … in duration everything remains internally related … God and creation thus become one and the same, with the inevitable slip that our creative power—including intellectual power—is divine. (21)

This dissolution of the divide between the divine and the human contributes to a utopian vision of the world and was of notable influence on the formation of Freemasons and their “social levelling” (40) project, wherein the clandestine organization sought to create “a new egalitarian social order” (40). Lagalisse traces this impulse (of creating an egalitarian society) to the revolutionary brotherhoods of the early 19th century. Lagalisse gives an historical account of the origins of the Illuminati: founded by Bavarian professor Adam Weishaupt in 1776, whose “revolutionary agenda involved the complete dismantling of the state, the Church, and the institution of private property” (45). Through Lagalisse’s historical account, the reader gleans a sense of the revolutionary impulse of occult societies like the Freemasons and Illuminati, which did not originate with the aim to protect property, profit, or an existing world order (the Holy Alliance of 1814 was formed to this end). Rather, they were groups born of a desire to see the spiritual awakening of humanity clear the way for a new way of being in the world, a new system of organization founded in the hitherto unimaginable aims that necessitated the eradication of government and clergy. It is not a far stretch to see how the mandates of these groups connect to a radical political impulse at the time: Lagalisse notes that both Bakunin and Hegel were Freemasons.

Lagalisse’s survey of the historical connections between occultism and anarchism is replete with footnotes—she herself writes of her “eccentric” use of footnotes—and I would recommend the reader investigate the sources she cites, for her book is short and does not go into any great detail regarding occult or political history. It is, rather, a brief survey of the connections between the two from the Renaissance until the First International period (for example, although she cites Bakunin as a Freemason, she does not endeavour to analyze his work in light of occult associations). The person approaching this book hoping to gain a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the connections between occultism and radical politics would do well to take the time to investigate the sources she notes concomitantly with their reading of the book to get a detailed sense of historical accounts. The reader who remains unconvinced of occult/magical import to activism today will find the brevity of the work sufficient. Lagalisse does not delve into the question of witchcraft and the witch hunts (and thereby women, in general) in her discussion of the occult, instead pointing readers to the works of Silvia Federici, Barabara Ehrenreich, and Diedre English.

In a particularly compelling passage, Lagalisse writes,

Communist and anarchist symbolism, such as the red star and the circle-A… also have Masonic origins. The star, which hosts an endless charge of esoteric meanings… is the pagan pentagram…In the nineteenth century, these symbolic associations were well known by those involved, however, and their adoption reflected how much they resonated with mystical and historical weight. (53-55)

To my mind this is one of the most important points of analysis across time, groups, and traditions, though perhaps that is due to my own inclination towards iconography and symbology. In any case, this brief statement is all Lagalisse has to say on the point of the power and origins of popular political symbols before turning her focus to Bakunin and Marx. I feel the work could have been strengthened with the addition of a chapter exploring the connections between occult and radical political iconography/symbology in greater detail, further investigating what the “endless charge” of symbols like the pentagram could be, particularly in reference to magical texts, how and why these “symbolic associations” are no longer familiar to activists, and investigating what such symbols stand for and why they continue to be employed to date despite the unconscious association with the occult.

While Lagalisse’s historical account is not lengthy or tremendously detailed, the book garners most interest in her two concluding critical essays, “Anarchism as a Historical Object: Attending to Questions of Race, Class, and Gender” and “The Conspiracy of Kings: Attending to the ‘Conspiracy Theory’ Phenomenon,” which hold today’s conventional (for lack of a better word) brand of Western anarchism to scrutiny. In the former essay Lagalisse posits:

[T]he ‘atheism’ professed by those working in the Western anarchist tradition intersects with a colonial mentality, as well as embodies a misunderstanding of the history of anarchism itself: maintaining a neat dichotomy between ‘spirituality’ and ‘radical politics’ only makes sense within a colonialist rubric wherein the religious Other becomes the constitutive limit of the ‘rational West’… we may also lose something in the process of applying the logic of property to culture, and to spirituality in particular…The sacred is thus rendered as alterity, nothing more than a cultural accoutrement in a marketplace as big as the universe. Appropriating indigenous spiritual forms without the intended content is entirely in line with the logic of capitalist colonialism, but so is marking off and containing everything considered sacred as property (and thus nothing more). (75-6)

In her introduction, Lagalisse writes that it was by way of colonial enterprise that Christianity came to represent itself as a secular entity by othering the cultures and communities it encountered. One way this was accomplished was by reserving the term “religion” for these spiritualities, which effectively normalized Christianity and contributed to the conception of “religious Other” as irrational. Lagalisse suggests that anarchists today unwittingly replicate this colonial mentality in their elevation of the logical/rational and disregard of spiritual. Often, as Lagalisse notes in her introduction and in her essay “Marginalizing Magdalena,” Indigenous views of the sacred and spiritual are considered irrational and disregarded when it comes to political organizing, tactics, and analysis. In this way, activists relegate the sacred to “cultural accoutrement” or property, thereby alienating themselves from spirituality and effectively replicating the very systems of domination and objectification they are endeavouring to work against. When we elevate the rational in our own analysis and actions, we may unwittingly dismiss spiritually-centred worldviews that have the potential to contribute to anarchist/activist tactics and analysis and nurture the radical imagination.

In her second essay, Lagalisse considers the phenomenon of conspiracy theory: who engages with it today and to what ends. Conspiracy theory, Lagalisse observes, is one way those without academic or theoretical expertise can engage with political criticism. Lagalisse points to an unconscious classism at work when activists, specifically academic activists with “good politics” (and here she points to the framework of her previous work), refuse to engage with those who consider conspiracy theory political commentary. Lagalisse asks, “Whose interests are ultimately being served by the activist policy of disengagement with ‘conspiracy theory’?” (95), an exceptionally interesting point, particularly if one harkens back to the beginnings of this book and the need for clandestine meetings of secret spiritual societies and revolutionary brotherhoods as they “conspired” towards a radical overthrow of the existing social system. By shying away from engaging with conspiracy theory and only “conspiring” with like-minded comrades who have knowledge of the same key terms and theories that learned activists do, we reinforce barriers of elitism, effectively barring others from our secret political society; however, like the secret fraternities of the Renaissance, a degree of exclusivity and privacy is necessary for self preservation, as demonstrated by the continued infiltration and surveillance of activist groups by state authorities. Lagalisse asks whether anarchists are truly interested in mobilizing a mass resistance, “Or is the priority among activists to distinguish one’s self as having ‘good politics’ and protect their small, safe, social enclave?” (101). Whether we operate in secret out of self-preservation or elitism, the realization of a new world does risk being hampered when we bar others from uniting with us because they don’t share familiarity with the same discourse.

Occult Features of Anarchism is an important book, and Lagalisse’s endeavour to tackle an obscure subject too often considered unsound or “woo woo” is commendable. Readers with some familiarity of the subject may find the historical investigation somewhat lacking but will no doubt be absorbed by Lagalisse’s analysis in the second portion of the work. Occult Features of Anarchism is a book not only for readers interested in uncovering the connections between secret sacred sects and political movements, but also for those seeking affirmation that there is room for spirituality in radical politics. Indeed, it is a part of its very origins. *