The slow, agonising death of postmodernism is one among many factors in our current cultural turmoil, but it has special relevance to chaos magick, which is founded so squarely on postmodernist thinking.
Since the far right also began embracing the notion that truth is relative, postmodernism is not looking quite so clever. This has placed chaos magick in a difficult position. The bad news was broken first by Gary Lachman, in his Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. But there has been little discussion of this crisis from within chaos magick itself.
Having listened to a recent discussion on chaos magick between two eminent practitioners, Patricia MacCormack and Phil Hine, I wondered how the effects of this unaddressed crisis might continue to unfold in contemporary occultism.
The notion of truth as relative has offered a reliable resistance to oppressive, absolutist “grand narratives”, and has been one of the great appeals of chaos magick. Phil Hine sets out bravely on this trusty steed, by describing how contemporary occultism has become constrained within a limiting dichotomy:
It’s either about bringing about a desired condition – money, love, sex, security – or it’s a transcendent trajectory towards a spiritual goal, whether that be union with a higher self, or a sense of divine participation, or even escaping from the materiality of existence. I think what binds those two trajectories together is the idea that magic has to be productive of something. It’s easy to see how both of those productions very quickly have become entangled with ideas of neoliberal governance. In fact, they are articulations of neoliberal ideology, if you like. (Whitechapel Gallery 2021: 45’32”)
Hine is highlighting the oppressive constraint of the neoliberalist paradigm, and showing how – because no paradigm has a greater claim to truth than any other – this is subvertable by exposing that it is merely a claim. Neoliberalism claims that only what is productive is valid, he shows us, but magick that is unproductive will escape from this.
So far, so good. But how do we subvert a paradigm that makes no claim to truth?
Increasingly, as the political right has commandeered postmodernism for its own ends, this is what we are facing. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, for instance, cannot be subverted by exposing their lies, because they were never trying or even pretending to tell the truth in the first place. The chaos magical dictum “nothing is true; everything is permitted” suits them just fine. As it does Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, and all the rest.
Lachman explores this problem in his distinction between “lying” and “bullshitting”:
Where the liar knows the truth and respects it – he does not want to get caught in his lie – the bullshitter couldn’t care less about it. He isn’t interested in the truth […] He is interested in the effect his bullshit has on his audience […] For chaos magick and postmodernism, whether something is true or false simply no longer matters. Truth or falsehood are beliefs which we can take on or put off as need be. (Lachman, 2018: 75)
Neoliberalism, unfortunately, is postmodern. It is bullshit. So it cannot be subverted by pointing out that its claims to truth are lies, because it makes no such claims.
Neoliberalist capitalism is now widely accepted as the only system that can work (Fisher 2009). Consequently, it does not need to make a case for itself. It does not matter what kind of impact it has, because there is no alternative.
Neoliberalism is much younger than the exhortation to productivity that Hine defines it as. (For example, the far-older “protestant work ethic” fits this definition just as well.) The chief characteristic of neoliberalism is its concession of authority to the market rather than to human ideals. When it is supposed that there is no such thing as truth, then all human ideals are merely competing narratives, none truer than another – in which case, why shouldn’t the market decide? When the principle of “nothing is true; everything is permitted” falls into the hands of right-wing demagogues, this is the type of result we can expect.
Within an economy determined by markets rather than by human need, neoliberalism, to ensure our compliance, engages and distracts us into a project of constant adaptation and self-improvement (Han 2017).
I recently left a job where I was providing assessments and counselling within a national employee assistance scheme. I was struck by the frequency with which employees described bad working conditions but had come seeking therapy or (more usually) medication, because they regarded themselves as the problem. Neoliberalism is hugely successful at persuading us the only viable reality is one organised according to market forces rather than by human ideals, and that it is our own responsibility to either adapt to this, or else consider ourselves failures.
“[S]elf-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages”, writes the psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe:
[T]he freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age. […] We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticise religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance […] our daily lives have become a constant battle against a bureaucracy that would make Kafka weak at the knees. (Verhaeghe 2014)
Hine suggests that magick which resists neoliberalism should avoid productivity and purpose, and cultivate instead a sense of wonder.
It can be as simple as the joy you feel in your heart when you see a friend on the street you haven’t seen for years, or just becoming lost in the in the play of the sunlight on a puddle […] That mode of perception itself creates a kind of occult artistic practice where all things can be magical […] the desire and delight in perceiving in a magical way. (Whitechapel Gallery 2021: 51’06”)
When we are forced into constant productivity then, indeed, non-productivity might look like a form of resistance. But exposing how the real aim of neoliberalism is only to extract productivity from us does not pull out the rug from under it, because neoliberalism does not pretend otherwise. It is postmodern. It does not insist on market forces because it regards these as either good or true, but just because it can. It does not hide any lies from us; it is pure bullshit.
There is nothing wrong with finding rapture in a puddle. Unless we have been forced into it, and under the inhuman pressures of neoliberalism have lost all hope of either goodness or truth.
Rather than renouncing productivity, another form of resistance might be to hijack the resources of neoliberalism for production that serves our own ends. This might be through magick, or more quotidian forms of causation – although to avoid unwanted attention magick might be the better option. The aim would be results, but for our own purposes, not in the service of market forces. Recent examples that spring to mind are the videos posted online by Shana Ragland and Beth McGrath, both former Walmart employees who used their employer’s public address system to air their grievances. Hine himself describes how he once placed a spurious sign in the executive restroom of a company where he worked, enjoying the chaos that ensued (Whitechapel Gallery 2021: 88’25”).
Sadly, chaos magick that previously worked well is no longer likely to do so against oppressive ideologies that are themselves postmodern.
During their livestreamed conversation, it was pointed out to MacCormack and Hine that their suggestion that magick should be purposeless is, of course, paradoxically ascribing a purpose to magick. (“Nothing is true” has always been, in itself, a claim to absolute truth.) Hine accepts that complete purposelessness may be impossible, but describes what, for him, comes closest to this.
I do a lot of – if you like – devotional practice to a particular goddess, and the whole idea of these practices is to dissolve that sense of distinction between you and the divine. So, I’ll often attempt to feel that goddess’s presence in my body and in the world around me. And that is a very weak purpose. Rather than saying: “I’m invoking this goddess in order that she might interfere with my continual fight to get the roof fixed”, the purpose is: “I want to experience the divine presence of the goddess”, which I think is a lot looser purpose. (Whitechapel Gallery 2021: 98’01”)
Having rejected results-based and transcendental forms of magick as both constrained by a neoliberalist notion of productivity, in the end Hine chooses the transcendental as his least worst option. Not because he regards it as better or more true, but because he seems to regard it as simply the least purposeful option.
But I wonder if this might not be what it seems. I wonder if actually Hine takes refuge in the goddess not because she is his least purposeful option, but the truest and the best. If this were true – or even if it were false – then it would then have a definite relationship to the truth. And in that case, it would certainly not be bullshit, although it would mean abandonment of postmodernism.
Mark Fisher (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Alresford: Zero Books.
Byung-Chul Han (2017). Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, translated by Erik Butler. London: Verso.
Inside Stories (2021). Walmart worker quits over intercom, https://tinyurl.com/uys9uktm (youtube.com). Accessed October 2021.
Gary Lachman (2018). Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. New York: TarcherPerigree.
Paul Verhaeghe (2014). Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us, https://tinyurl.com/uw3nyfap (theguardian.com). Accessed October 2021.
Whitechapel Gallery (2021). Magic: documents of contemporary art, https://tinyurl.com/3hwfsjbe (youtube.com). Accessed October 2021.