‘The sleep of reason produces monsters’ -Goya
“Alternative facts”—conspiracy theory, disinformation, pseudo-science, and convenient lies—are the warp and weft of extremist beliefs. The radical right’s parallel reality is woven from many dark and fanciful threads, from The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion to the demonization of George Soros, from scientific racism to “human biodiversity” to the myth of “cultural Marxism.” This fabric of conspiracism makes the radical right milieu an attractive cover for demagogues and con-men alike, cynics and true-believers, who exploit the radical right’s tendentious relationship with facts for financial or political gain. Even when exposed, these grifts seem to bear little impact upon the views and loyalties of those they’ve targeted. The Cold War theory of “when prophecy fails” helps to account for this phenomenon, in which broken promises only deepen faith in, and loyalty to, the promise-breaker. Thus do extremist modes of magical thinking and demagogic fraud intersect at three mutually reinforcing points: (1) the exploitation of magical thinking; (2) the production of magical thinking; and (3) the reinforcement of magical thinking.
Yet to this schema might be added a fourth point. This is based upon the model of “occult economy,” in which the mere act of fraud inspires a mysticism inflected with extremism. Along with the theory of failed prophecy, this approach to an occult economy offers a structural and dynamic means to understand how unreality proliferates in extremist milieus.
The concept of occult economy derives from the work of Jean and John Comaroff, and is encapsulated in their 2000 essay Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming. The article is a work of postcolonial political economy, which examines popular discourses regarding the supernatural in societies where corruption and fraud are prevalent. The Comaroffs show how public perception of (and participation in) occult activity surges at those moments in economic history when an elite seems to be making fortunes while apparently doing nothing of substance. This activity comprises, first; “a material aspect founded on the effort to conjure wealth—or to account for its accumulation—by appeal to techniques that defy explanation in the conventional terms of practical reason” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2000, 318). That is, believing that techniques grounded in magical thinking can produce wealth. The second adherent for occult economy is an “ethical aspect grounded in the moral discourses and (re)actions sparked by the (real or imagined) production of value through such ‘magical’ means” (ibid). That is, the socio-ethical position taken in relation to occulted sources of obscene wealth—the cultural attitude taken toward dubious fortunes and their perceived occult origins.
The Comaroffs recount the experience of societies at the epicenter of neoliberal recolonization, and the proliferating practices of witchcraft and zombie magic that accompanied the sudden unexplained wealth of corrupt business and public leaders. But the circulation of occult economy is far from exclusive to developing nations. The Comaroffs link prosperity gospel in the United States to finance capitalism. This period in history—when fortunes were being made in what amounted to legalized securities fraud—was, of course, also the heyday of The Secret, a postmodern blend of “new thought,” sympathetic magic, and scrapbooking, which posited a psychic link between the intensity of desire and the accrual of unearned wealth. “Occult economies,” write the Comaroffs, “are a response to a world gone awry, yet again: a world in which the only way to create real wealth seems to lie in forms of power/knowledge that transgress the conventional, the rational, the moral—thus to multiply available techniques of producing value, fair or foul” (Comaroff & Comaroff 2000, 316). Arcane but material modes of corruption among the elite thus give rise to arcane supernatural attempts among the non-elite to match the wages of mystified, legalized, crime.
A similar dynamic plays out among today’s radical right internet celebrities—and even the president himself. Mike Cernovich, an online hustler of nootropic brain pills, life coaching, and self-help books, offers an object lesson in this dynamic. At the core of each product Cernovich peddles is a bespoke version of reactionary mysticism, anchored in cartoonish performances of masculine identity: if one develops the ideal “Gorilla” mindset, one will accrue the benefits of wealth and authority through sheer force of desire and will.
Of course, this is an example of the first valence of occult economy. A magical process of desire and worthiness alchemically combine to bestow unearned riches upon the elect. Cernovich’s racket spreads a toxic mysticism not only as product, but in the very disconnect between the myth of Cernovich’s success and its actual sources. In fact, Cernovich’s own fortune is largely the outcome of an alimony settlement. Cernovich’s success, then—the secrets of which he promises to reveal for a fee—are not the result of a magical mindset, but rather the legally-mandated charity of a woman who wanted nothing more to do with him. This fact was neglected as Cernovich built his brand, and so the “Cernovich system” for success could only “defy explanation in the conventional terms of practical reason,” founded as it was on obfuscation. The mere attempt by his customers to follow in his misleading footsteps thus became a practical process of conjuring unreality.
President Trump likewise peddles an occulted personal brand, claiming wealth in vast excess of what he actually possesses, and attributing it to a kind of personal magic of brilliance and will, when it seems intricately bound up in networks of fraud and international money laundering. His victory in the 2016 American presidential election, far from a triumph of “12-dimensional chess,” looks like the outcome of procedural arcana and corruption—ranging from gerrymandering, to voter suppression, to Russian interference—which are simply beyond the understanding of those attributing to Trump strategic powers verging on the supernatural.
Trump is a valuable example for understanding occult economy’s dynamic production of fascistic mysticism as a byproduct of unrecognized criminal corruption. The actual sources of his wealth and influence have been intentionally obscured so as to defy credible description (and criminal investigation). His actual record of governance also obscures a failure to deliver on so many signature pledges. Mystification thus produces near-cultic devotion in his admirers, and what emerges from this sleep of reason are bizarre attempts at narrativization on the part of those drawn to his power. Conspiracy, mysticism, and magical thinking are neither message-products, nor (in this specific dynamic) pre-existing cultural forms to be exploited. They are the byproduct of a cognitive dissonance produced by mystified material realities of public corruption and criminality.
The occult-economic generation of mysticism should be understood as a byproduct emerging from a dynamic of corruption, magical thinking, and the human need to understand. It is a valuable, and underutilized, model for understanding the role of conspiracy and magical thinking in extremist groups – precisely because it is the sole mode of mysticism-production that is both non-agentic (i.e. emergent, not as a consequence of conscious human engineering) and, unlike “failed prophecy”, indicates an in-progress problematic. In other words, the mere presence of mysticisms of personal enrichment—such as “Gorilla Mindset,” “12-D chess,” or even The Secret—should warn observers that some hidden dynamic of corruption is at work. Following the events at Comet Ping Pong, the recent attempted bombing of center-left political figures, and the ongoing collective psychosis of QAnon, we must not underestimate the danger associated with conspiratorial thinking and radical right mysticism. Given the potential (indeed, inevitability) for these nightmares of unreason to burst forth in violence, we must not neglect to understand any potential site of origin and contagion. Occult economy thus warrants our ongoing attention as a developing model for the production of this dangerous unreality.
Mr Brian Hughes is an Early Career Research Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate at the School of Communication, American University. His profile can be found here:
© Brian Hughes. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
Comaroff, Jean and John. 2000. Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming. Public Culture 12, no. 2: 291-343.