Conspiracy theories rule. Cryptids? Hell yes. Give me all the Mothmen and Skunk Apes that small town American can encounter on a warm summer night. Satanic Panic? Boomers losing their shit over Dungeons & Dragons is hilarious, keep it coming. Government, big business and Hollywood are run by amoral sickos that show active disdain for normal people? Sounds about right. Sadly, a lot of the culture surrounding conspiracy theories in America tends toward darker beliefs. The British nutcase David Icke has garnered millions of views on Youtube claiming the Occupy protests were organized by a cabal of Jewish bankers that are also lizard people. A guy once walked into a D.C. pizza shop with an assault rifle because he thought the Clintons were trafficking children out of it. In November, thirteen American politicians will be running for office in state elections that believe Donald Trump will team up with JFK Jr. (who’s alive, y’all!!!) to secretly throw the sickos of the government, big business and Hollywood into Gitmo. Like it or not, the violence and anti-Semitic right-wing conspiracies of QAnon and Pizzagate are well on their way to achieving legitimacy in American politics. The tragedy of all this is that government conspiracies exist, but most right-wingers either don’t believe them or just straight up support them. The U.S. government has 100% secretly experimented with mind control on American citizens (MKULTRA). It has for sure sent agents into left-wing protests groups to sabotage them (Operation CHAOS). Governments have been overthrown, radical politicians spied on, writers and artists barred from working. These documented events, that any you slice them can be considered conspiracies, receive way less cultural attention in 2020 than Alex Jones or COVID truthers. What if a way existed for a modern day Leftist movement to hijack the energy and attention right-wing conspiracy videos receive to better ends? To shift the focus away from lizard men and the Rothschids to the wealthy and powerful that ACTUALLY oppress others in the name of capitalism? This book seeks to answer that question. This is Occult Features of Anarchism by Erica Lagalisse.
This book is short, but it’s dense. It’s essentially an academic essay that seeks to correct a number of misconceptions about Anarchist history that affect the movement today. The first question it wrestles with is the role of spirituality within anarchism. It’s not uncommon for many anarchists to be atheist. Nothing wrong with that, organized religion has a lot of crimes to answer for. Lagalisse however, explores the role spirituality has played in some modern anarchist movements, particularly in the symbols and iconography used by indigenous movements like the Zapatistas of Mexico. The images Lagalisse analyzes look kickass, and serve her greater point that an anarchist movement can have elements of spirituality without bowing to an organized religion. She further argues that too harsh an anti-religion attitude among activists can stifle membership in a movement where inclusivity is the goal, especially among indigenous, working class people in the Third World. Like it or not, spirituality has a role in anarchism. Lagalisse describes how many historical figures whose ideas could be considered ‘anarchist’ also displayed interests in spirituality or the occult. A quote Lagalisse pulls from one source in the 1800’s claims “scratch a spiritualist and there is an anarchist underneath.”
Lagalisse then turns that discussion of magic and spirituality to the idea of conspiracies as a whole. The main meat of the essay is a look at the history of secret societies in Enlightenment era Europe, namely the Illuminati and the Masons. These two groups in the modern day are bywords for the elites that run world governments in modern day conspiracy circles. Presidents, generals, men of business and every other kind of asshole that’s kept people down have been part of these groups, leading them to be justifiably looked upon with suspicion in the modern world. Lagalisse explores the creation of these groups and what their original goals were 300-400 years ago. Turns out, they wanted to level the playing field. Began as secret organizations of radical students dedicated to science and Enlightnment ideas, they sought to challenge and hopefully break the backs of the groups that controlled European peasants, namely the Church and the nobility. Like any radical organization, they were spied on, repressed and extinguished wherever they could be found. Lagalisse does an excellent job of linking these early groups of educated radicals to modern day working class anarchist movements. Both Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin, the big daddy of modern anarchism, were both Masons. They viewed the organization as a way to gain political influence that could be turned to more radical, egalitarian ends. The Masons developed the series of rituals and codes their famous for as a way to spread cohesion and legitimacy among its members, not unlike modern day movements that require certain concepts and vocabulary to be understood in order to be accepted as a serious member. Even the most famous of anarchist symbols, the ‘A,’ comes from a bastardization of a Masonic symbol meant to symbolize Enlightenment and free thought. For its length, it’s wide ranging and hits a lot of points quickly that can be overwhelming if not read deliberately.
The book closes with a discussion of the place conspiracy and conspiracy theories have in modern day leftist movements. Lagalisse, an activist herself, argues that by dismissing belief in conspiracy theories, leftist movements shoot themselves in the foot by closing themselves off from members whose beliefs are too ‘weird,’ preferring to ostracize them rather than work to correct their beliefs. Lagalisse instead says we should be more open to those with more fringe ideas, smoothing out the crazy ‘flat-earth’ style beliefs and redirecting their energy to fighting battles that need to be fought. Battles that can lead to a more egalitarian and free future. If anarchism is to be a movement for regular people, if our greatest strength is in numbers, our only hope is to let them in.
As Boots Riley once wrote: ‘They got the TV, we goth the truth/ They own the judges and we got the proof/ We got hella people, they got helicopters/ They got the bombs and we got the guillotine.’
Quote of the Book:
“There is no politics without conspiracy. The question is simply “who” is conspiring to do “what.” –Erica Lagalisse
Keep or Donate:
This book is a tough read, no two ways about it. Lagalisse is a scholar and this is a scholarly work. Whatever time it takes you to read this book will require triple that time in looking up ancient philosophy, occultist beliefs and magic rituals to get a full understanding of what she’s talking about. It’s worth doing, but if you go in not expecting it, the denseness of this small book will shock you. Keep it. Even if you never reread it, keep it as a reminder of what inclusivity in a movement means. A reminder that even though you and your comrades might not agree on every point, we still have a world to win and as Marx said, nothing to lose but our chains.