One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. – Carl Jung
Most conspiratorial thinking deliberately serves the interests of the rich and powerful. But, as I wrote above, we are now confronting something entirely new. Extreme right wingers are presenting aesthetic web presences with superficially progressive themes, but which, upon closer inspection, reveal pro-capitalist, reactionary and/or racist agendas. This phenomenon relies on two factors. The first is the major social media platforms and their algorithms that encourage rapid dissemination of unreliable information and the confirmation bias that results from seeing only what the viewer already believes in. Now, Q-followers rarely see what you see, and if they do, it is presented in a format that minimizes the moral consequences.
The second is that these platforms are deliberately designed to take advantage of millions of good-hearted, “spiritual but not religious” people who have – quite rightly, in my opinion – lost all trust in the mainstream media, but who seem to have also lost the ability to discriminate between progressive ideas and the language of hate. One writer refers to these folks as “DRH” for “Down the Rabbit Hole.” I prefer “New Age Conspiracists,” or NACs, and I’ll bet you know a few of them.
Such people often share certain personality traits such as distrust of authority and institutions, particularly in the fields of health and education; openness to unusual experiences; willingness to detect hidden patterns; deep longing for authentic community; and an attraction to alternative paradigms.
Many of these folks have long existed outside of conventional career paths, resonate with a libertarian, anarcho-capitalist entrepreneurial tone, are open to information that some psychics claim to have “channeled” from other, non-physical dimensions, and believe in the ability to manifest financial and romantic success and vibrant health through positive thinking, as taught by Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling book and film The Secret. In the film version, a series of self-help teachers promote positive thinking, primarily toward the goal of acquiring consumer goods and a great love life. This tradition extends back to the New Thought teachers of early 19th-century America. And let’s be really clear about this: the film ignores the values of community almost totally.
Mainstream media writers, who are primarily from the middle class, have never understood people who reject their values, demeaning the post-hippie culture as “bliss ninnies” of the “the love-and-light crowd.” Nor has the mainstream acknowledged how the counterculture actually birthed the high-tech world we all take for granted, as John Markoff relates in What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.
Among my 60s generation the characteristics that encourage artistic, religious and even scientific exploration, as well as a disdain for convention, usually produced liberal, anti-authoritarian attitudes on social issues and optimism about the future. But those same characteristics, encouraged by a lack of deep introspection, have a dark shadow. The term “conspirituality” was coined in 2011 – long before either Trumpus or QAnon. Charlotte Ward and David Voas write that
It offers a broad politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions, the first traditional to conspiracy theory, the second rooted in the New Age: 1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ in consciousness. Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.
Jules Evans suggests how these two forms of experience can flow into one stream:
…. The first is a sort of extroverted euphoric mystical experience: “Everything is connected. I am synchronistically drawn to helpers and allies, the universe is carrying us forward to a wonderful climactic transformation (the Rapture, the Omega Point, the Paradigm Shift), and we are the divine warriors of light appointed by God / the Universe to manifest this glorious new phase shift in human history.” The second: “…Everything is connected, there is a secret order being revealed to me, but I am not part of it. It is an evil demonic order…perhaps I, and one or two others, can wake up to this Grand Plan, and expose it”…The first trip is a euphoric ego-expansion (I am God! I am the Cosmic Universe evolving!) and the second is paranoid ego-persecution (The Universe is controlled by Evil Demons…) In both, the individual awakens to this hidden reality. But in the first, they are a superpowered initiate in the hidden order and a catalyst for a Millenarian transformation, in the second they are a vulnerable and disempowered exposer of the powerful hidden order.
Both forms exemplify mystical or even schizoid thinking. In both, the ego is part of a grand cosmic drama. In one, it is the divine appointed catalyst for humanity’s rebirth. In the other, one is the heroic exposer of the Hidden Order. And it appears to be possible that one can switch between ecstatic, optimistic Millenarianism and paranoid persecutory conspiracy thinking, from “everything is connected and I’m a central part of this wonderful cosmic transformation!’’ to “everything is connected and I’m at risk from this global plot!”
It’s always been about waking up – being “woke.” For my children’s generation, the “red pill” moment of the 1999 film The Matrix became the central metaphor that connected these two forms of mystical thinking. On the left, being red-pilled implies awareness of social justice issues.
Rightists, however, have adopted the metaphor to represent an awakening from their perceived conditioned trance of soft, inappropriately liberal concern for the poor – those whom our American mythologies have labelled as unworthy. And any institutions that interfere with this libertarian focus on the individual are simply impediments to a narcissistic preoccupation with self-fulfillment. Then we enter the slippery slope in which the ability to discriminate diminishes in favor of an intuitive knowing and an essentially religious disdain for science and conventional sources of authority.
As I’ve said, much of that disdain is regularly justified by revelations of massive corporate corruption, especially in the fields of nutrition and wellness so treasured by NACs. The danger, however, is that they can become vulnerable to fake news that encourages that magical thinking. (Before we slide into simplistic demonization of “anti-vaxxers,” however, let’s remember that many others on the progressive Left who have retained that precious ability to discriminate are vaccine skeptics not because they disregard science, but because they reject the capitalist corruption of science.)
American history, especially the history of health care, is replete with good-hearted, naïve “holy fools” – and the con-men, from P.T. Barnum to the grifters already lining up to replace Trumpus – who have always been willing to steal our watches and sell them back to us. For more, read my series “The Con Man: An American Archetype.”
The devaluing of intellectual checks and balances combined with exclusive emphasis on positivity and the inability to grieve (another American religious characteristic) can result in “spiritual bypass” – the use of metaphysical beliefs to deny, distort, or reframe legitimate human suffering, both personal and social, and it can attract really decent and idealistic people toward cults and ideologies, whether spiritual, political or consumeristic.
After the Dionysian explosion of the sixties, the meeting with Eastern religion, psychedelics and indigenous spirituality introduced healthier lifestyles that have benefited millions. But the phrase “human potential movement” entered the lexicon carrying the seeds of its own destruction wherever its proponents refused to address the fullness of the psyche. In late capitalist America, a society lead by uninitiated men and sociopathic narcissists long before Trumpus, they encountered institutions – work, church, media, politics, education, the police and the military, and perhaps most of all, the family – designed expressly to elicit their darkest potentials, much of which were channeled into fundamentalism, toxic masculinity, addictions and the vicarious fascination with brutal militarism.
Chapter Five of my book describes James Hillman’s Depth Psychological insight into the excessive identification with the dry values of “spirit” as opposed to the wet values we associate with “soul.” In mythological terms, this is the opposition between Apollo and Dionysus taken to its extreme. Julian Walker writes that for spiritual people,
…we end up engaging in a practice that, rather than shaping outside reality, as is often claimed in media like The Secret, instead burns a distorted operating system and perceptual lens into our neuroplastic brains…It’s the practice of thinking facts and evidence are relative, mutable, and can be made to mean whatever we want via the narcissism-enabling belief in absolute subjectivity — the divine “I” that alone creates reality and stands all-powerful within it…For spiritual folks the threshold into the overlap is crossed…into just the exact shadow reflection of the light-and-love delusion. It is the positive, synchronistic all-is-perfect obsessive pattern-seeking confirmation bias turned on its head and set on fire — and that fire fantastically fueled by the explosive emotional gasoline kept buried until now by spiritual bypass.
Walker is one of many voices writing from within the Human Potential Movement. He describes several “worldview weaknesses” held by many NACs:
1 – Over-privileging of the individual over the collective.
2 – Denying the validity of other points of view, over-equalizing opinion and undermining of respect for expertise, all of which can lead to bigger sales and more followers. “Real scientists are always open to being wrong. Real scientists know the current hypothesis is only as good as the next batch of data. Real scientists are careful.” I would add: real scientists refuse to allow corporate toadies to corrupt their data to show quarterly profits.
3 – “Esoteric knowledge ego inflation:” rejecting virtually anything that can be called mainstream as a means of subtly bolstering one’s sense of having esoteric insights into reality.
4 – A sanitized, overly rosy spirituality that ignores the shadow “creates a bubble of positivity” that, when faced with actual suffering, can twist into its opposite and perceive its polarized antithesis in the form of evil elites. This can fuel messianic zealots who “can become compelling and charismatic leaders because they are rock solid in their convictions.”
5 – Belief in the “Law of Attraction,” which teaches that people create their own realities. This idea does have a core of truth. But it reinforces detachment from collective political action, radical individualism – that most fundamental American myth – and New Age promises of “instant gratification mental changes.” And, I would add, by ignoring its own deeply Calvinist roots, it leads to moral condemnation of those who don’t think positive thoughts. This is another specifically American story, as I describe in “Blaming the victim.”
Another person writing from within this community is Martin Winiecki, who offers “Six Reasons so Many Spiritual People Have Been Fooled by QAnon”, and I extrapolate:
1 – Lack of Structural Analysis: The culture of radical individualism sees both heroes and villains in particular individuals or small, hidden groups. But when we don’t address the systemic nature of our condition (whether spiritual or material), this kind of thinking merely reinforces the system itself.
2 – Overly simplistic, binary thinking: Suppressing “negativity” encourages the shadow to take on a life of its own, “which will terrorize and subconsciously dominate them…” Jung concluded from his study of world mythology that when suppressed aspects of the psyche finally emerge – as they always do – they tend to be angry.
3 – Implicit Racial Bias: Stories about Soros’ control of social movements clearly reflect old-school, anti-Semitic prejudice about all-powerful Jews, while New Age fear of introspection leads to the unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of white privilege. Repetition of claims that Black Lives Matter is “a tool of the liberal elites” reveals the belief that black people aren’t able to speak for themselves. “Not seeing color” insults actual people of color who live their entire lives identifying exactly as they are.
4 – To denounce conventional reality as illusion can lead to the inability to realize that one’s own political views reflect ideology and thus believe everything and nothing at once. “According to the great political philosopher Hannah Arendt, this is precisely the psychological state of people who follow totalitarian ideologies.”
5 – The post-modern experience that the left has lost its appeal due to intellectual elitism, moral and ideological rigidity and rejection of non-material realities leads to the unconscious search for another ideology as a replacement.
6 – The natural desire for community is corrupted by its shadow of radical individualism and the profit motive. This results in people with no previous connection to each other fusing together in an illusionary sense of shared identity. Why are so many wellness practitioners in particular falling for the onslaught of QAnon claims? Although the global wellness industry is reportedly worth $4.5 trillion, its more controversial elements continue to suffer disparagement not only from Big Pharma but from countless self-appointed, individual gatekeepers of the status quo (do you, reader, giggle when a friend offers a treatment with healing crystals?) Now in this current state of emergency – where defeating the pandemic requires universal social acquiescence – many purveyors of these views see their paranoia being confirmed. In a form of what Brigid Delaney calls “trauma bonding,” this strengthens their connections with figures such as Alex Jones who appear to favor individual rights, and like that broken clock, may well be right twice a day.
I would add a seventh factor:
7 – The natural desire to attain self-awareness and mystical realization is corrupted by those same factors. People often realize the deeper unity of beings and the need for a truly planetary frame of reference, at least briefly, through the experience of psychedelic plant medicines. However, as Daniel Pinchbeck writes,
The problem is that they need a cultural / initiatory context or container which supports them in fully integrating the influx of new knowledge and wisdom. Otherwise, the ego structure finds ways to distort these revelations for its own purposes, in a variety of subtle ways. This is how the Neo-spiritual and psychedelic movement have gone off track…Fascism is a kind of low-grade occultism: It satisfies the ego mind’s desire for a simplistic unity and gets rid of all the nagging paradoxes and contradictions of reality.
For more insight into conspirituality, there’s an entire website, www.Conspirituality.net, which describes itself as “a weekly study of converging right-wing conspiracy theories and faux-progressive wellness utopianism.” One of its pages lists over thirty wellness “influencers” that have posted, shared, or explicitly created QAnon-related content, even though many have recently scrubbed direct reference to Q itself.
Let’s be clear about this: we need to integrate the mystical and self-realization visions with indigenous initiation wisdom and roll it all into a perspective that reveals the systemic sources of racism, misogyny and political alienation that impact us all. Indeed, the idea of “spiritually awakening” to our true nature long ago predated the current idea of “woke.” But without the ability to discriminate, to understand the mythic narratives that drive our willingness to innocently embody and enact them, we remain “bliss ninnies” at best and crusaders for fascism at worst.