Suggest that magic plays a massive role in American politics today and most people will look at you as though you just sprouted an extra head. There’s a reason for that reaction, rooted in an impressive ignorance about the nature of magic. A century or so of pop-culture fantasias of the Harry Potter variety, using inaccurate notions of magic as a dumpster for the human needs and longings that our gizmocentric society does a poor job of fulfilling, stands in the way of understanding what it is and how it shapes our political realities.
The first step towards an understanding of the political dimensions of magic, then, is to remember that Harry Potter has as much to do with real magic as the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein has to do with real science. Dion Fortune, one of the 20th century’s leading theoreticians of magic (and a crackerjack practitioner), is a better source of insight here. She defined magic as the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will. That definition is trickier than it looks. Whose consciousness? Whose will? Those are crucial questions, and they are political in nature.
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Let’s start with a straightforward example. At some point during the last 24 hours you probably saw an advertisement for fizzy brown sugar water. That’s not what the ad called it, of course, and that distraction — think of it as a spell of invisibility — is an important part of the sorcery we’re discussing. Notice that the ad didn’t try to convince you of the alleged merits of the syrupy goo it was pushing at you, nor did it aim anything else at your rational mind.
No, the ad deployed imagery meant to set off emotional reactions that have nothing to do with the product. Here’s a group of people on a billboard. They’re young, they’re attractive, they look healthy, they’re wearing clothes that tell you they have plenty of money, they’re having a great time, and they’re all clutching cans of fizzy brown sugar water. If I tried to convince you that guzzling the contents of one of those cans will make you young, attractive, and the rest of it, you’d roll your eyes. Yet that’s the message the deep levels of your mind absorb, and your behaviour shifts in response. In magical terms, the ad cast a spell on you: that is, it caused change in your consciousness in accordance with the advertiser’s will.
This works because the rational mind is a thin veneer on the surface of a standard primate nervous system. Scratch that veneer, and you’ll find all the raw biological cravings and vague associative thinking that most people in industrial societies like to pretend they’ve outgrown. Repeated exposure to a spell — that is, a set of emotionally charged images and words designed in accordance with the rules of magic — punches straight through the veneer and speaks to the archaic primate-mind underneath it. Unless you’re aware of the effect and adjust for it, the images affect you, and you reach for that can of fizzy brown sugar water, even though you know perfectly well that the only thing you’ll get from it is tooth decay.
This kind of sorcery is pervasive in today’s industrial societies. Back in 1984, in his brilliant book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Ioan Couliano pointed out that most countries in the industrial world had discarded the jackboots and armbands of old-fashioned authoritarianism for subtler methods of social control rooted in magic. The industrial nations of the world, he argued, were “magician states” in which most people are kept disenfranchised and passive by manipulative images and slogans projected by the mass media. It’s a persuasive analysis and does much to explain the nature of power in modern societies.
Not all of the magic that surrounds us, after all, focuses on goals as straightforwardly mercenary as the example just discussed. Consider the vacuous slogans brandished by the three most recent presidents of the United States: “Yes We Can”, “Make America Great Again”, “Build Back Better”. All three incantations are meant to manipulate voters using the same kind of magic applied by manufacturers of fizzy brown sugar water. They target a different set of emotions, those that work on the contrast between dreams of a better future and the increasingly miserable conditions of life in today’s America, but they use the same strategy of exploiting non-rational emotions to market an unappealing product.
Widespread as it is, this approach to magic is far from omnipotent. Sometimes it fails because the spell is badly designed: Hillary Clinton’s impressively clueless slogan “I’m With Her” flopped, for example, because she lacked the charisma to make the prospect of identifying with her appeal to the emotions of enough voters. Sometimes it fails because a competing spell is stronger: “I’m With Her” also had to contend with Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”, which drew on much more powerful emotional drives.
Yet the mass-produced sorcery of advertising suffers from another critical weakness. No two people have exactly the same structures and content in the deep places of their mind, and their responses to magic varies unpredictably. Advertisers try to get around this by targeting a handful of simple biological drives linked to sex, safety, and status, which are common to all social primates and affect most people in something like the same way. Magic aimed at these drives, using suitably crass stimuli, tends to be successful enough to push products and sway elections, and so long as that’s all that matters, no more focused magic is needed.
But pushing products and swaying elections is not always enough. Here we need to draw a distinction between the political class of a society — the people who have a significant and privileged voice in public decisions — and the rest of the population. The political class is always a minority, and often a very small minority, however enthusiastically it may wrap itself in rhetoric of majority rule. Its hold on power depends on its ability to come up with reasonably effective responses to pressing social problems. So long as it fulfils this problem-solving function, the rest of the population shrugs and goes on with life.
Now and then, however, the political class of a society fails to address the most pressing problems of the time. Sometimes this is a matter of simple incompetence, but more often it happens because those problems are caused by policies that benefit the political class, which the political class is unwilling to abandon. Arnold Toynbee, whose 12-volume opus A Study of History explored this process in detail, coined a neat turn of phrase to describe the change. He terms a political class that is still fulfilling its problem-solving function a creative minority; when it abandons that function, it becomes a dominant minority, and the society it manages tips into decline.
Certain social phenomena reliably show up whenever a political class loses the ability or the desire to solve the most pressing problems of its era, and tries to cling to power anyway. The one that’s relevant to our present purpose is that in such an era, magic explodes in popularity — and the kind of magic that becomes popular is the kind that individuals practise on themselves, using rituals, meditations, affirmations, and other traditional occult tools to change their behaviour and affect how other people respond to them. Look at a period when personal magical practice flourishes and you’ll find that era dominated by a failing elite in charge of a society full of problems that are not being addressed.
In the United States, for example, occultism had its first golden age between the end of the Civil War and the Roaring Twenties. During those years the robber barons of Wall Street treated the federal government as their wholly owned subsidiary and the majority of the population knew from hard experience that their concerns would go unheard and their needs unmet. That helped drive a widespread interest in magical workings of all kinds, ranging from rootwork spells for prosperity to magical lodge initiations aimed at higher states of consciousness. When the Great Depression and the New Deal brought that era of blatant kleptocracy to a close, interest in magic and occultism dropped off sharply.
Thereafter, magic stayed unfashionable until the late Sixties, when the managerial aristocracy that rules the United States today started treating the issues that mattered to most people as annoyances to be brushed aside. A second golden age of American magic followed promptly, partly drawn from the legacy of older American occultism and partly inspired by half-understood imports from other culture. Yes, it’s still ongoing. Magic will thrive in the United States despite the fulminations of rationalists until the managerial state either learns how to listen to the people it claims the right to lead, or has the levers of power wrenched from its hands.
Two significant social forces drive the rise of magic in a society ruled by a failing political class: one affecting the population as a whole, the other affecting the political class. Among the underprivileged majority, magic becomes popular because it offers a way of bettering your life when all other options have been slammed shut. Even when you can’t change anything else, after all, you can change your consciousness in accordance with your own will.
That has several advantages. First, using magic allows you to evade the effects of sorceries directed at you by institutions controlled by the political class, so that you can pursue your own goals rather than being subservient to theirs. Second, because human consciousness isn’t as tightly confined to the insides of individual skulls as currently fashionable philosophies like to claim, changes in your consciousness can affect how other people react to you, and that offers various avenues for improving your own life. Third, magic — like its more respectable twin, religion — also offers the possibility of attuning consciousness to sources of energy and meaning that transcend humanity. Discussing these sources and their implications would take us far afield from the present theme, but the higher and deeper dimensions of occult tradition are central enough to magic that it’s worth acknowledging them here.
So the underprivileged have good reasons to embrace magic. So do the overprivileged. Here the problem is simply that no political class wants to face the reality of its own decadence. Central to the self-image of every political class is the notion that its members deserve their privilege by some combination of practical competence and moral virtue. Even — or especially — when this isn’t actually the case, members of the political class base their identities on the idea that they are the good people, the capable and compassionate people, whose wealth and privilege are nothing more than they deserve. Magic, in turn, is one of the ways they prop up that illusion.
Some of the spells in question are charmingly simple. It’s standard practice, for example, for a dominant minority to pretend to fill their ostensible role as society’s problem-solvers by going through the motions of solving problems, choosing for this purpose problems that matter to no one outside the political class itself. (The antics of today’s corporate wokesters offer plenty of examples here.) Yet this sort of expedient rarely does an adequate job of shielding members of a decadent political class from an uncomfortable awareness of their own failure, and so the overprivileged — like the underprivileged — turn to individual magical practice.
American society today offers a bumper crop of examples. Consider the various forms of watered-down Buddhism, carefully stripped of the robust moral self-examination and ascetic habits that play such important roles in traditional Buddhist teaching, which are marketed so assiduously to corporate clients as non-chemical tranquillisers. Consider the cult of positive thinking so neatly eviscerated by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Bright-Sided, which serves the function of convincing the comfortable that all is well with the world, especially when it’s not. There are plenty of other examples, from weekend-workshop shamanism to the more lucrative ends of goddess spirituality and the New Age movement.
It’s easy to make fun of the embarrassing features of these social phenomena, but they serve a serious purpose. Most members of the political class in today’s America would be appalled if they let themselves realise just what the policies they support have inflicted on working people and the poor. Half a century ago, it bears remembering, a family of four in the United States with one working class income could afford a home, three square meals a day, and all the other necessities of life, with a little left over for luxuries now and then. Today a family of four in the United States with one working class income is probably living on the street.
That immense shift, which plunged tens of millions of people into poverty and misery, did not happen by accident. It was the direct result of policies enthusiastically embraced and promoted by the American political class: the offshoring of America’s industries, the tacit encouragement of mass illegal immigration to drive down wages and working conditions, and the metastatic growth of government regulations that crushed small business for the benefit of huge multinational corporations, among others. That is a thought that the American political class cannot allow itself to think. Magic — the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will — is an essential tool for keeping that realisation at bay.
That said, there are definite drawbacks to a set of practices that encourage the dominant minority of a society to bumble blithely along, convinced that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, while the society they govern plunges down the steep slope of decline around them. It bears remembering that magic was practiced with great enthusiasm by the overprivileged and underprivileged alike in France in the decades leading up to 1789, Russia in the decades before 1917, and Germany in the decades that led up to 1933. I think most of us remember what happened thereafter in each of these cases.