I was recently linked to a fascinating and well-argued video regarding a figure those of you who’ve read me for several years will find familiar. The video, produced and released on Rebel Bass’s Youtube channel, is entitled “Ecofascism and John Michael Greer.”
If you’re reading this but not intending to watch the full video (I really think you should), let’s make clear immediately: John Michael Greer isn’t called an “eco-fascist” in the video (rather, an “eco-conservative” and possibly “eco-reactionary.”)
Now, readers newer to my writing, or blessedly ignorant of the way social media explodes nuanced critiques into total (social capital) wars, might not be familiar with my history with John Michael Greer or even who he is. So, before I discuss the video–and more importantly the vexing question it touches upon–let’s go back to March of 2016.
A writer at Gods&Radicals (Shane Burley) had just submitted an essay about Augustus Sol Invictus, an occultist with fascist ties (so fascist, in fact, that an ultra-nationalist organization, the American Guard, kicked him out because he was too fascist). As editor, it occurred to me that readers would be unfamiliar with the movement known now as “the alt-right” but formerly (and still in Europe) as “the new right.” Remember, this was before Trump’s election and any of the massive anti-fascist rallies against alt-right speakers and even before Pepe the Frog memes entered most people’s social media feeds.
So I wrote a companion reference piece, entitled “Confronting the New Right,” intended to give readers more background for Shane’s piece. Instead, that reference page went “viral” and pretty much made me a pariah to right-leaning pagans and a sudden (but temporary, because it’s always temporary with them) hero to social justice sorts. One of the immediate effects of that furor was a response from John Michael Greer, who still holds the distinction of writing the most prosaic and eloquent hit-piece on me:
This is where our demagogue enters the tale. His name is Rhyd Wildermuth, and he’s a Pagan anarchist Marxist—yes, I have trouble parsing that one, too. Late last month, he put up an anonymous screed on a website he manages—he later acknowledged it as his—purporting to warn the Neopagan community about the threat of what he calls the New Right…
Beyond the amusement value, though, there’s much to be learned from Wildermuth’s tirade. It really is a fine piece of demagogy. Note how he wields the classic tropes of threat by subversion, painting the New Right as a malevolent influence worming its way into the heart of Paganism rather than, say, noticing that Pagans embrace as many different political options as they do spiritual ones, and leaving it at that. Pagan traditions, he claims, can be infected with New Right ideas even without knowing it—a claim that makes it easy for him to find those ideas anywhere he chooses, and just as easy to dismiss out of hand any disagreement with his accusations. Note also the way that he glides smoothly from “New Right ideas” to “New Right aligned Pagans,” who are “hiding their political goals behind claims that they’re ‘apolitical’.” It’s the logic of Stalin’s show trials and the witch burnings: deny that you’re influenced by the New Right and that just proves that you must be hiding your real agenda.
…The proof of the pudding is in the eating, to be sure, and evidence for or against my take on Rhyd Wildermuth’s agenda will come only with time. If I’m right, it’s early days yet. Denunciations of the New Right menace supposedly slithering through Paganism’s crawlspaces, innuendoes targeting this or that figure or organization on Wildermuth’s list of suspect traditions, veiled demands that leaders and organizations in the eclectic Pagan scene fall in line behind the witch hunt or risk being targeted themselves
John Michael Greer once wrote a rather delightful series about failed apocalypses (entitled “Apocalypse Not”); I think a full three and a half years from Greer’s prediction of the destruction of neo-paganism from my “Marxist Demogogy,” we can safely say he can add his own prophecy to that collection.
So that’s our “history,” as it were. But a larger history worth noting has only tangential relation to paganism, and that’s the history of so-called Eco-Fascism–an ideology to which neither I nor the creator of that video believe Greer adheres. I’ll go one step further though: there is not (yet) such a thing as Eco-fascism.
What’s Eco-Fascism, anyway?
In 1996, Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmeier published Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience. This pamphlet was two essays, one by Biehl and one by Staudenmeier, which warned of the possibility of a reactionary environmentalism that could supplant mainstream environmentalism based on Enlightenment values. Building upon the work of other historians who wrote about the “environmentalism” of some Nazi theorists and politicians, they argue that we are now (well, 1996 “now”) at risk of a new fascist ecology. I’ll quote from it at length.
From the introduction:
As social ecologists, it is not our intention to deprecate the all-important efforts that environmentalists and ecologists are making to rescue the biosphere from destruction. Quite to the contrary: It is our deepest concern to preserve the integrity of serious ecological movements from ugly reactionary tendencies that seek to exploit the widespread popular concern about ecological problems for regressive agendas. But we find that the “ecological scene” of our time — with its growing mysticism and antihumanism — poses serious problems about the direction in which the ecology movement will go.
One word might probably have jumped out as odd: “mysticism.” It isn’t as odd as it first seems, however, as an anti-spiritual, anti-mystical, and indeed anti-Pagan narrative runs through the entire tract. For instance:
In ways that sometimes approximate beliefs of progressive-minded ecologists, these reactionary and outright fascist ecologists emphasize the supremacy of the “Earth” over people; evoke “feelings” and intuition at the expense of reason; and uphold a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusian biologism.
More than ever, an ecological commitment requires people today to avoid repeating the errors of the past, lest the ecology movement become absorbed in the mystical and antihumanistic trends that abound today.
At the heart of the völkisch temptation was a pathological response to modernity. In the face of the very real dislocations brought on by the triumph of industrial capitalism and national unification, völkisch thinkers preached a return to the land, to the simplicity and wholeness of a life attuned to nature’s purity. The mystical effusiveness of this perverted utopianism was matched by its political vulgarity.
and most of all:
When ‘respect for Nature’ comes to mean ‘reverence,’ it can mutate ecological politics into a religion that ‘Green Adolfs’ can effectively use for authoritarian ends….Authoritarian mystifications need not be the fate of today’s ecology movement, as social ecology demonstrates. But they could become its fate if ecomystics, ecoprimitivists, misanthropes, and antirationalists have their way.”
From these quotes alone (but really the entire pamphlet), it should be obvious that the two authors are highly critical of (if not outright aggressive towards) any sense of mysticism, pantheism, animism, or other spiritual beliefs involving nature, arguing essentially that these invariably lead to fascism (thus making indigenous people all proto-fascist…). To make this point, they focus heavily on the mystical origins of many of the ideas which the Nazis used to construct their conception of the Volk, and then present the mysticism itself as the reason why such ideas were accepted.
The authors do not do this in a vacuum, however, nor are they objective narrators. The author of the second essay, Janet Biehl, is a former Social Ecologist who was a student and then collaborator of Murray Bookchin, the founder of “Libertarian Municipalism” and of Social Ecology itself. Bookchin’s ideas have heavily influenced modern anarchist and environmentalist thought, and many of his ideas are now in use by Democratic Socialists and also in the PKK, both pro-statist political movements informed by anti-capitalist and anarchist thought.
Bookchin had little nice to say about spirituality, either. In Janet Biehl’s description of Bookchin’s eventual break with anarchism:
Such individualism lay at the root of a complex that Bookchin called “lifestyle anarchism,” which he criticized in the essay “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm.” As Murray described lifestyle anarchism:
Invertebrate protests, directionless escapades, self-assertions, and a very personal “recolonization” of everyday life parallel the psychotherapeutic, New Age, self-oriented lifestyles of bored baby boomers and members of Generation X. Today what passes for anarchism in America and increasingly in Europe is little more than an introspective personalism that denigrates responsible social commitment; an encounter group variously renamed a collective or an affinity group; a state of mind that arrogantly derides structure, organization, and public involvement; and a playground for juvenile antics.
Personalistic or lifestyle anarchism was preoccupied with the ego, Murray thought, typified by a narcissistic inwardness and seeking self-enchantment. Its very forms of rebellion were petulant and egoistic, episodes of “ad hoc adventurism” marked by personal bravura. Lifestyle anarchists were stridently antipolitical and anti-organizational.
Perhaps most grievously, lifestyle anarchism rejected the core values of the Enlightenment, to which Murray had always been committed and that he had always presupposed, never imagining that they would one day be challenged. Attracted to mysticism, desire, ecstasy, imagination, paganism, and the New Age, lifestyle anarchism was hostile to reason as such and harbored an aversion to theory, even celebrating theoretical incoherence; and when it was not engaged in bravura, it receded into Taoist quietism and Buddhist self-effacement.
With this in mind, we can return to the pamphlet on Eco-fascism which she co-wrote and suspect that, rather than being an objective analysis of environmentalism, spirituality and fascism as it may have merged in the Nazi regime, her analysis might just have its own atheistic bias. While that bias does not necessarily make her conclusions wrong, as with the capitalist media’s coverage of Eco-fascism and the “merging” of anti-industrial/anti-modern ideas with far-right ideology we should maybe wonder if something else is happening here.
Social Ecology is relevant to the question of Eco-fascism in more than just the pamphlet which first decried it, however. To understand why, you first need to understand more of what it proposes. Social Ecology insists that the cause of environmental damage is completely due to the way societies are organized (hierarchical, capitalist, etc), and that in order to stop Climate Change humans would need to decentralize into small democratic councils on the municipal level that democratically communicate with one another to make larger decisions. This is generally anarchism, or anarcho-syndicalism, with one exception: Bookchin insisted the only way to go about this was to participate in the current capitalist democratic governments (through running for city council, voting, etc) and, echoing Marx, the state would eventually just fade away.
Anyone familiar with the Democratic Socialist Party of America is no doubt already familiar with this logic, as this is basically their platform. Get elected by getting enough people to vote for you, and then eventually change the system from within by the very means by which the system formerly maintained capitalism. It is, in essence, a statist solution, one which demands people have the same faith in the goodness and fairness of their elected leaders as the Leninists and Stalinists demanded in the USSR. This same logic also prescribes how environmental damage will be addressed, because once enough social ecologists are elected to enough city councils, they will all stop capitalism from destroying the planet.
Social Ecology, then, is at its heart an anti-insurrectionist ideology. Peace. justice, and an end to Climate Change can and must only be attained through democratic processes. It is the ideology behind the “Green New Deal” and other liberal-progressive proposals to save capitalist civilization by transitioning slowly (and through capitalist mechanisms) to a “greener” economy. Its promises are that “we” (urbanites in America and Europe) can continue our current way of life without too much disruption if we just replace certain technologies with other ones. For Social Ecology (as well as most of what passes for the “left” in the United States), modern society just needs to be managed better; we can still have all the consumer goods given to us by capitalist industry but we can have them cleaner. That’s why the Jacobin could argue without any apparent sense of irony whatsoever that in the face of climate change, we should be building more nuclear power plants in order to give every human air conditioning.
But wait–what about the Nazis?
So though most of what we think now of as “eco-fascism” comes from a specific pro-technology thread of leftist thinking, there’s the apparent problem of Nazi “environmentalism” itself, as well as several recent lone-wolf white nationalist attacks citing climate change as a major reason why they killed people with darker skin than themselves.
First, as Ramon Elani and I mention in our essay “Our Rage Against the Modern World” and I expound upon in “The Future Is Fascist,” the Nazis and Fascism itself can hardly be said to be “anti-progress” or even really environmentalist. Nazi rhetoric invoking the “volk” and pre-industrialized, pastoral social forms was just that: rhetoric. For instance, consider this quote from Himmler, oft-used by climate-change deniers and also pro-state leftists to prove links between radical environmentalism and fascism:
The peasant of our racial stock has always carefully endeavored to increase the natural powers of the soil, plants, and animals, and to preserve the balance of the whole of nature. For him, respect for divine creation is the measure of all culture. If, therefore, the new Lebensräume (living spaces) are to become a homeland for our settlers, the planned arrangement of the landscape to keep it close to nature is a decisive prerequisite. It is one of the bases for fortifying the German Volk.
A curious thing I’ve noted about the discourse around eco-fascism is that, while we’re generally very reluctant to take the words of Nazis like Himmler at face value otherwise, when the fear of eco-fascism arises, suddenly this critical mind shuts off.
This apparently damning statement from Himmler was from 1942, three years before the end of World War II. At this point, much of Germany had become hyper-industrialized: new train, highway, and canal systems sprang up almost monthly, while all the pre-Nazi factories (and the many new ones) churned out absurd amounts of war production. For all the “eco” rhetoric and language around pre-industrial society, the Nazi party was simultaneously enacting the most modern, industrial, and anti-“eco” policies Germany had ever seen.
That is, Nazi rhetoric about the environment wasn’t just rhetoric, it was propaganda. Likewise with the manifestos of recent “eco-fascist” shooters in Christchurch, New Zealand and El Paso, Texas, in the United States: both cite the environment in their justification for killing people, and if we take their statements at face value (because apparently white nationalists aren’t deluded?), then sure. But to use a little trick I learned as both a magician and a Marxist (but you can get this insight from just plain common sense), we could maybe ask why, if they were really trying to save the environment with their actions, they targeted worshipers at a mosque (instead of, say, oil refineries in Saudi Arabia) or working-class shoppers at a Wal-Mart (instead of, say, the CEO or board of directors of Wal-Mart)?
I said at the beginning of this essay and I’ll repeat it: there is not (yet) such a thing as Eco-Fascism, anymore than there is not (and never will be) such a thing as Green Capitalism. To take Nazis at their word that they are environmentalists is to use the same amount of critical thinking involved with accepting Starbucks’ claims that it cares about the environment, or for that matter, your “eco” toilet paper’s claim that you’re protecting the earth by wiping your ass with it.
All Politics Will Soon Be “Eco”
If we are to be critical of (and we must be) white nationalist claims that they are environmentalists and capitalist claims that they are “green,” we must also be just as critical of Democratic Socialist and Social Ecology’s claims about a “Green New Deal” or any other technological and state-led fixes to the climate crisis we all face. And that’s where we can now return to the video on John Michael Greer and Eco-fascism.
Greg Belvedere does a very good job in his video of hitting upon a very difficult nuance that has vexed me for months regarding arguments about what can actually be done about Climate Change. I (and several other writers at Gods&Radicals, as well as our entire organization) have been accused of being “eco-fascist” more times than I’d like to count. These accusations come from the same sort of online “Social Justice Warrior”sorts that Greer in his writing often derides (and uses as proxies for the entire left, never distinguishing them from the many Marxist and Anarchist tendencies who reject most social justice rhetoric as hopelessly Liberal).
These criticisms, however baseless, do nevertheless have an ideological underpinning. As I argued years ago in “Social Justice…Or Revolution” and also in the fourth chapter of All That Is Sacred Is Profaned, most of the political constellations of identity politics do not actually undermine or even address the core of capitalist empire and its need to create hierarchies around race, gender, ability, and sexuality. Instead, they try to make capitalism more fair and just, demanding equal profit-sharing of the capitalists’ plundering of the earth and the poor. Thus, to someone for whom the current Liberal Democratic hegemony is unquestioned, but who still wishes to right the wrongs the system relies upon, any position that challenges endless economic growth and technological “progress” will immediately sound reactionary.
So, in this at least, Greer and I have something in common. Greer, like me (as well as Autonomous Marxists and many anarchist tendencies), is highly critical of industrial capitalism, the modern Liberal Democratic state, and also many of the state-centered political “solutions” to Climate Change. For my part on the left (and many others like me), the technological optimism of Social Ecology and the refusal to even address the core underpinnings of capitalist exploitation of the earth and people (as seen in the “Green New Deal,” DSA-style “leftism,” and most online social justice “theory”) absolutely must be criticized. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of the self-annointed enlightened, these criticisms are as dangerous as the politics of white nationalism.
Greer can be described as a de-growth conservative, a techno-pessimist, and quite a few other things. However, he is not an eco-fascist. The terms the creator of the video uses are “eco-conservative” and “eco-reactionary,” and perhaps both of these are apt, but this begs a question: why add the “eco” at all?
This isn’t to say that Greer isn’t aligned with ecological concern; on the contrary, no other pagan (he’d hate that I use that term, but whatever) has written more on the environment and the complexity of the ecological problems industrial capitalism has gotten us into than him. Rather, we must seriously consider that maybe concern for the environment is not actually a useful prefix to any ideology, since eventually every political tendency will have to contend with the collapse of our biosphere.
From here, we can then look at the problem of “eco-fascism” and wonder if what’s going on isn’t that fascists are co-opting environmentalism for their own agenda. Maybe instead what’s happening is (as Belvedere points out with his reference to a Chapo Trap House audio clip), fascists are merely marketing their ideologies as solutions to the worsening material conditions facing humanity.
This isn’t a stretch, by the way. This is precisely how both the fascist movement under Mussolini (an ex-anarchist) and the Nazi movement operated. In both Italy and Germany, leftist tendencies (split between anarchists and communists) warred with each other and the fascists to win over the working classes by offering solutions to the poverty and social chaos facing both countries. In Greece in the past decade, the same battles occurred between fascist Golden Dawn members and anarchist and communist groups, fighting each other to respond to the collapse of the Greek economy and the deep unrest these material conditions caused. In Italy now it is the same, as elsewhere (and soon to be in more “stable” nations like France and the United States).
Environmental collapse is the ultimate material condition. Mass migrations in and out of countries will only increase as droughts, famines, floods, and civil wars arise in this changed and degraded climate. Resource wars are coming; scarcity of oil, food, water, and security are already creating conflict everywhere. And in every place, governments will increasingly struggle to keep order, and states that are threatened from within become totalitarian quite quickly.
All politics will soon be “eco” politics, and perhaps already are. Thus, all political struggle that we’ve thus far seen will continue, just with every fighter now wearing a slightly different shade of green. The capitalists propose their answers to this crisis along with the fascists, differing only on whether dark-skinned people will be kept around as cannon-fodder and unpaid labor or marched off to death camps. The leftists have their answers too, and from my vantage point the differences come entirely down to whether or not the state and industrial society can be turned into the solution to all our problems or must be destroyed as a primary cause of them.
And then there’s John Michael Greer, the brilliant and aloof magician, eloquent writer, astute theorist, and cantankerous loner. The remarkable thing about Greg Belvedere’s video about him is that Greg seems to share the same affectionate frustration that I felt towards Greer. Greg states he’d been reading Greer for a decade; it’d been at least four years for me when I wrote “Confronting the New Right.” Both of us seem to have read him for the same reasons–John Michael Greer is mostly right. Mostly right, that is, except when he is terrifyingly (and increasingly) wrong.
“The Long Descent” isn’t just the title of one of Greer’s best books, but also another way of describing the slow-motion train wreck one watches as his otherwise brilliant mind rivets itself into the rails of New Right thought. This descent is hardly unique, nor is it even very interesting. It’s the same pattern which turned a well-known gay activist in France into the author of the “Great Replacement” panic theory, or occultists like Augustus Sol Invictus, Jack Donovan and Troy Southgate from free-thinking libertarian sorts into misogynists and fascists, or turned the critiques of patriarchy by many “radical” feminists into virulent misandry and anti-trans violence. It’s also the same pattern that turns the deep desire for equality and anti-oppression work of social justice activists into harassment, bullying, and community- and self-destruction.
Whenever anyone decides they cannot be wrong, they begin the process of becoming very wrong. But who knows? Perhaps Greer will notice he was wrong about my destruction of paganism. From there, perhaps he’ll adjust his divination rituals accordingly, and maybe even take another look at some of his other wrong ideas about how the world works.