In my head there are scores of essays needing to be written. In my life, there are limited hours to write them. One of those essays—towards which this will be a paltry and haphazard attempt—is on the religious nature of the woke madness possessing what we once called The Left.
Possessing is the correct word here, but to understand why you’d need a rudimentary understanding of polytheist metaphysics or some experience with Jung. Jung is the easier route for most, so I would suggest reading his terrifyingly predictive speech, “Wotan.”
But what is more than curious — indeed, piquant to a degree — is that an ancient god of storm and frenzy, the long quiescent Wotan, should awake, like an extinct volcano, to new activity, in a civilized country that had long been supposed to have outgrown the Middle Ages. We have seen him come to life in the German Youth Movement, and right at the beginning the blood of several sheep was shed in honour of his resurrection. Armed with rucksack and lute, blond youths, and sometimes girls as well, were to be seen as restless wanderers on every road from the North Cape to Sicily, faithful votaries of the roving god. Later, towards the end of the Weimar Republic, the wandering role was taken over by thousands of unemployed, who were to be met with everywhere on their aimless journeys. By 1933 they wandered no longer, but marched in their hundreds of thousands. The Hitler movement literally brought the whole of Germany to its feet, from five-year-olds to veterans, and produced a spectacle of a nation migrating from one place to another.
In this speech (given in 1936), Jung suggested that what was happening in Germany was that an ancient archetypal force (a god, though Jung’s concept of a god is more like a mass consciousness) had awoken in German society, ultimately manifesting in the form of the Nazi party.
A more modern way of describing this apparent mass consciousness—one that doesn’t rely on metaphysical language—is “mass hysteria” or “group think.” And while these seem somewhat reliable descriptors for anyone squeamish about esoteric frameworks, I suggest you try for a moment to let go that squeamishness just long enough to finish reading this essay.
That’s after all what Jung urged his listeners to do, too. From that speech:
We are always convinced that the modern world is a reasonable world, basing our opinion on economic, political, and psychological factors. But if we may forget for a moment that we are living in the year of Our Lord 1936, and, laying aside our well-meaning, all-too-human reasonableness, may burden God or the gods with the responsibility for contemporary events instead of man, we would find Wotan quite suitable as a casual hypothesis…
Jung argues that societies have over-arching ‘gods’ which define the psychological character of their actions. The word he famously used for this was archetype, but for him an archetype was not merely a conscious form after which we model our behavior but unconscious forms arising from “psychic forces” for which we did not yet have scientific explanations.
These forms do not always manifest within a society, except in moments of passion, crisis, or other times when individuals become less themselves and more part of a group.
If you were in the United States in the days following 11 September, 2001, you have a readily-available experience through which to understand this process. Suddenly, almost everyone was waving American flags and talking about Freedom and Revenge and Unity, no matter if they had never been to New York City or had any political consciousness just before the towers fell.
Something swept over them, inhabited them, or as Jung put it, “seized” them. In those first few weeks, an over-arching presence seemed to arise or “awaken” from their collective unconscious experiences (the “empathy” they all seemed to feel, a shared feeling of being attacked or traumatized that had no objective reality).
The strangest thing for me during that time was how many otherwise very rational people in my life suddenly claimed to have had relatives in one of the towers or planes. Four people I knew decently well told me about a sister or a cousin they were mourning. I immediately believed the first two people who told me this, but then noticed something strange happening after the third and fourth said almost the same things.
Even stranger? When I asked about these dead relatives later, three of those people appeared to have forgotten they’d ever even told me these things, while the fourth, who initially looked perplexed, then offered a clarification. “I meant my friend’s sister, not mine.”
Precisely what happened? There are a few possibilities. First, you could suspect I was wrong and had misheard these people (a feeling I myself had at the time—I thought I must have gone a bit crazy). Barring that, the answer is either that they were lying, or in those moments they truly believed what they were saying. (1)
The third possibility is the one Jung suggests we seriously consider.
All human control comes to an end when the individual is caught in a mass movement. Then, the archetypes begin to function, as happens, also, in the lives of individuals when they are confronted with situations that cannot be dealt with in any of the familiar ways.
That is, some sort of mass consciousness—an archetype—arose in the United States after 11 September 2001 which temporarily subsumed the individual personalities and characters of people into its own reality. That reality also subsumed their previous identities, replacing it with a mythic group identity (“we are all New Yorkers,” just as the French all said “I am Charlie” after the Charlie Hebdo attacks) which altered their actions and beliefs.
Put another way, they were possessed by something bigger than themselves. Jung again:
Perhaps we may sum up this general phenomenon as Ergriffenheit — a state of being seized or possessed.
For the Germans, Jung suggests that the thing bigger than themselves was Wotan, but he himself also admits the archetype need not have a name except to distinguish it from other archetypes that seize other people.
Here we take a short side-trip to one of my favorite subjects that also someday deserves an essay: the concept of charisma.
Charisma, which we now use to describe a certain ineffable quality about a person, derives from the Greek khárisma and generally meant “divine grace or favor.” A person with khárisma appeared to others to have some sort of divine quality, a gift or favor bestowed upon them by a god. A person of unusual and startling beauty, for example, or someone with a particularly alluring voice, or someone who seemed to magnetically draw others towards them: each were thought to have been touched by a god.
This idea never went away within Western culture. It was picked up quickly by Christianity (in which the gifts and favors were given by the one-god), and continued even after the Enlightenment supposedly made us all secular. We still speak of charismatic people, people with “a certain charisma,” even if we do not attribute that ineffable quality to a god’s intervention.
Trump, for example, was described both by those who adored him and those who loathed him as being “charismatic.” That charismatic quality obviously did not come from his physical appearance or voice (both of which were generally the opposite of what anyone would consider attractive), but rather something else completely. That something evaded all rational explanation, as did also his relentless invulnerability to criticisms and judicial processes that would have silenced anyone else.
I brought us on this little side-trip to point out that we already have a kind of metaphysics despite our supposed rationality. We recognise khárisma in people and fall under its sway, and also retain a kind of belief in it despite its apparent irrationality.
We also recognize the power of charisma to create mass movements, a power we learn to fear, a power we warn against. We fear the power of demagogues, of populism, the power of the mobs. Both those in authority and those without authority equally rally against charismatic ideas that threaten the static order, be that government repression against the Black Panthers or the “antifascist” crusades to silence alt-right speakers.
The more charismatic the enemy, the more violent the reaction by those who wish to stop them. We speak now of silencing ‘ideas,’ but perhaps what we are really speaking of is snuffing out the bearers of divine gifts which we know will possess others. And here we must remember that the monotheistic moral framework (all that is divine is good, all that is against the divine is evil) keeps us from seeing a truth that animist and polytheist cultures throughout the world understood: the divine is a disruptive force that threatens constantly to alter the mundane. (2)
Consider: alt-right speakers like Richard Spencer and black Marxist leaders like Fred Hampton both possessed the ability to draw others into their orbit and influence in ways that the rest of us cannot. They possessed an ineffable quality, a gravity, a divine spark which made their ideas (each seen as threatening and dangerous to their respective enemies) more likely to take hold. Thus, those who saw the mass movements that those men could potentially initiate acted to stop them by any means necessary.
In both cases, a new order of meaning seemed ready to be birthed through the charisma of those men. And if charisma means ‘divine gift,’ then the question which inevitability follows is, “where did that gift come from?”
We could say instead they appeared to be in the service of a larger idea, and those ideas themselves had power to create mass movements. Here again, though, we’re talking about metaphysics whether we want to or not. What is the objective material reality of an idea? It has none, or none that we can physically point to. Instead, we only see the effects of the ideas, the “presence” of an ideology.
An ideology seizes a person, inhabits their minds, informs and shapes their actions. Islamic extremism, for example, or progressivism, or QAnon conspiracy, or radical environmentalism: they all act in the same way the ancients thought gods acted and the way Jung claimed archetypes acted.
When people are possessed—be that by a god, an archetype, or an ideology—there is an extra filter of reality between them and those who are not possessed. If you’ve ever talked to a Seventh Day Adventist, or a Scientologist, or a Flat-Earther, or a Maoist, or any other true believer, you know what this feels like. You do not share the same thought processes or world views, you lack certain shared foundations or common ground upon which to build a conversation. It’s almost like they’re not actually there, as if something—or someone—else is talking through them.
Conversations with them tend to devolve into “buzzwords” or odd phrases full of meaning to them but meaningless to you. Worse, they don’t seem to notice that there is no shared meaning of those phrases, that you do not understand them the way they do. You, on the other hand, become painfully aware of this schism, hoping all the time that they might be able to step outside their internal narrative long enough to notice this gap.
I worked for six years as a social worker for severely mentally-ill and drug-addicted homeless people. When my clients with schizophrenia were “responding to internal stimuli,” (3) it was precisely this same feeling. They were talking “nonsense,” yet for them they were speaking quite rationally, and they could not see there was another reality outside of the one they were experiencing. They were being seized, possessed, swept up into something else that I couldn’t experience no matter how hard I might have tried to meet them where they were.
This is what is happening to many on “the left” now. They are becoming “seized” by an ideological framework which was only ever meant as a tool for understanding certain situations, not as a totalizing faith to describe the world.
I see this most in the current arguments about “Critical Race Theory,” a tool meant originally to expand upon Marxist understandings of class disparity. “Intersectionalism” once meant that someone could experience systemic oppression from multiple angles, rather than what it has become now: the belief that the more oppression identities you have, the more of a victim you can claim to be no matter any external reality. (4)
The crucial point here is that, for decades, anti-racist work meant teaching people to stop associating skin color with inherent qualities. The goal was to make race eventually irrelevant, to make it wither away as an ideological concept through education and institutional change. Now, however, “anti-racism” means reifing race, insisting that race is an essential quality by which people should be judged and which causes them to act certain ways.
That’s how we have gotten to statements such as “white people shouldn’t do white things,” or “all love relationships between white and black people will be unequal” (5) or “white people are inherently oppressive.” To argue against those statements (or to challenge the usefulness of Critical Race Theory) is to be a racist, which is precisely the same mechanism other “true belief” systems deal with threatening critique.
It is as if people are becoming possessed. Of course, they believe this is all liberating, that this is all the truth, that is this is all the unfolding revelation, that they had relatives who died in the towers.
Yet at the same time, I encounter more and more leftists, people I have known for years, who are also shaking off this collective spell. I have only recently shaken it off myself, finally exorcising this awakening god from my mind.
It was much like leaving fundamentalist Christianity at the end of my adolescence. It was an ugly process, requiring the loss of friends and some really awful moments of self-doubt. Both the Christian god and the woke god claim you are a sinner, lost without meaning and capable of only harm without it. Both gods claim the world is full of suffering and violence without it, and that your only path to salvation is through confessing your faults and following the one true way.
But the woke god is also like the archetypes against which Jung warned. Not Wotan, perhaps, but possibly Loki, the accuser, the saboteur, the constantly unhappy one whose ressentiment leads not just to the destruction of those he hates but also those he loves. Particularly in Loki’s obsession with the “letter of the law,” his obsession with the failure of the other gods to live up to their own stated ideals (like a child in tantrum screaming at their parents, “but you promised!), he makes a great candidate for this mass insanity.
If so, the results of this god’s work will not be what any of those it has seized hope it will be. There will be no utopia of racial equality and justice as long as we worship at the altars of race theory (its right wing versions or its left wing ones), just relentless strife and a horrifying backlash.
But this should surprise no one. The thousand-year Reich never came to pass, either.
Eventually, the seizing will end, the mass insanity will fade. It will not leave the world untouched, of course, and I suspect there will be fewer of us around on the earth to recall how bizarre things got. Maybe many won’t remember at all—just as those who first claimed they’d lost loved ones in New York City seemed to have completely forgotten they had said those things.
And of course there have always been other gods, other archetypes, other ideas we can embrace instead. There are gods who do not possess and instead give gifts, archetypes that lead towards noble action and peace rather than strife and ressentiment, and ideas that truly liberate and expand our consciousness.
Maybe we could try those, instead.
- This second possibility deserves a little attention. It’s quite possible they were attempting to convey a sense of internal trauma with those lies. Though they didn’t actually have relatives who died, they felt as if they did, and by saying so it allowed them to describe their felt sense of trauma in a way to which others would respond. This is also what happens when someone says “you have caused me harm” when no harm was actually affected. They feel harmed, and thus try to find an external source of that harm.
- This is the primary point of my recent essay on cultural appropriation, “A Plague of Gods.” Much of this can also be found in Marshal Sahlins and David Graeber’s anthropological work, On Kings.
- This was the nice clinical way of saying, “seeing or hearing things that were not there.”
- A rich black woman is by nature more oppressed than a homeless white man, for example.
- I’ve read quite a few “woke” people now arguing that white and black people should never have sex together for this reason. This is no different from the laws against inter-racial marriage instituted by white southerners.