Why a 1972 concept from the sociology of religion could be more important than ever for the study of the contemporary radical right.
In 1972, British sociologist Colin Campbell introduced the concept of the “cultic milieu” to describe the social and philosophical environment in which contemporary cultic beliefs and organizations arise. Cultic, in Campbell’s usage, refers not to the popular imagination’s idea of a ‘cult’ as a group of individuals in the thrall of a charismatic but exploitative leader, but as loosely structured groups of spiritual ‘seekers’ that require less fidelity than traditional religions or sects and are oppositional to the dominant orthodoxy in their beliefs or practices. In fact, it is the unorthodox and oppositional nature of these beliefs and the potential for cross-pollination that makes the cultic milieu visible as a cultural underground where subcultural beliefs prosper. It is within this milieu that the raw material of oppositional belief structures and practices—a heterogeneous mixture of occultism, pseudoscience, mysticism, and conspiracy theory—can be found.
The concept of the cultic milieu has proven generative for scholars of the radical right for years, despite the fact that Campbell himself has questioned the utility of analyzing radical political groups through this lens. One of Campbell’s primary objections to the study of political groups through the cultic milieu is the presumed lack of spiritual ‘seeking’ to be found in radical politics, but many radical right groups do, in fact, develop belief systems and practices that incorporate esoteric thought, occult rituals, and pseudoscientific theories into their political ideology. For example, Christian Identity has roots in ariosophy (an esoteric völkisch movement originating in late 19th century Austria that roughly means “wisdom of the Aryans”) while Cosmotheism takes inspiration from the esoteric Hitlerism of Savitri Devi, whose pantheistic monism blended Hitler worship with Hindu cosmology.
Indeed, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s work has demonstrated the influence that esoteric beliefs and practices has had in far-right traditions, particularly Nazism and neo-Nazism. Although many of these connections have been sensationalized by pseudohistories such as the bestselling occult text The Morning of the Magicians and in television programs like Nazi Cavemen, scholars should not be discouraged from interrogating the relationship between the radical right and spiritualism, esoteric or otherwise. In fact, it is precisely because of these popularizations that scholars should be concerned with the happenings of this cultural underground.
Why consider the cultic milieu?
One reason why the cultic milieu remains a powerful heuristic for analyzing the radical right is that esotericism and occult belief serve as an intellectual thread between extreme right movements of the 20th century and today. For example, Julius Evola—the Italian fascist philosopher whose oeuvre includes writing on nationalist mysticism and spiritual racism—has been embraced as an intellectual godfather by a number of post-war neo-fascist groups and movements including the Nouvelle Droite and the alt-right. As Goodrick-Clarke has noted:
“Evola’s aristocratic world of Tradition, painted in the exotic colors of Hyperborean and Eastern mythology […] offers an esoteric mystique to reactionary discourse and is attracting new audiences. His rigorous New Age spirituality speaks directly to those who reject absolutely the leveling world of democracy, capitalism, multiracialism and technology at the outset of the twenty-first century. Their acute sense of cultural chaos can find powerful relief in his ideal of total renewal.”
In fact, many of the ideas and practices that circulate within the cultic milieu date much further back than the 20th century. Take for example the appropriation of pagan symbolism and spiritual practice in racialist new religious movements such as David Lane’s Wotansvolk, which combines Norse mythology with ariosophy and Jungian psychology. Indeed, the desire to seek an “authentic” form of Aryan spirituality has led many white nationalists to neopagan religions, often to the chagrin of other practitioners.
Another reason to consider the way radical right-wing politics interacts with the cultic milieu is the fact that the beliefs that make up the cultic milieu do not remain in isolation from each other. Far-right ideas can introduce individuals to esoteric and occult thought and vise versa. According to Campbell, “seekers” who enter the cultic milieu in search of spiritual truths “do not necessarily cease seeking when a revealed truth is offered to them, nor do they necessarily stop looking in other directions when one path is indicated as the path to the truth.” For example, someone could enter the milieu in search of “the truth” about extraterrestrials and come into contact with pseudoarcheology and ancient alien theories that incorporate racialist ideas about the extraterrestrial origins of humanity and the devolution of non-Aryan races.
An additional reason to be concerned about the influence of far-right theories in cultic milieu in mind is its porous relationship with the cultural mainstream. Although the cultic milieu can serve as a cultural dumping ground for unorthodox and disregarded belief, it can also be a fertile breeding ground for new beliefs and concepts. The stuff of tomorrow’s conspiracy theories, occult practices, and mystical beliefs are already circulating through the cultic milieu, waiting to be discovered. And amongst that material is fascist mysticism, racial pseudoscience, and Nazi occultism.
Consider the seemingly strange history of contact between Nazism and Satanism, from Anton LeVay and the Church of Satan’s countercultural embrace Nazi symbolism in the 1960s to the Order of the Nine Angles, the theistic Satanist cult with ties to the neo-Nazi terror organization Atomwaffen Division. Or the fact that Atomwaffen Division has embraced the writings of James Mason, the American neo-Nazi whose obsession with Charles Manson led to his 1982 split from the National Socialist Liberation Front. Viewed from the perspective of the cultic milieu, these intersections seem far less strange than they might appear at first blush. In the heterodox subcultural space known as the cultic milieu, unorthodox and countercultural belief systems such as these intermingle promiscuously. Those concerned with the actions and ideologies of the radical right should be aware of these interactions, as well as the beliefs, practices, and alliances they produce.
K. E. Shropshire is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. See full profile here.
©K. E. Shropshire. 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).