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Witchcraft isn’t subversive A nasty paradox runs through the WitchTock ethos

Is this witch manifesting the downfall of capitalism, or propping the system up? (Photo by: Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics via Getty Images)

Is this witch manifesting the downfall of capitalism, or propping the system up? (Photo by: Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics via Getty Images)


February 15, 2022   5 mins

Once the bankers have gone home for the night, the City of London becomes a mysterious place. It evinces secrecy and subversion; you can feel the presence of something arcane beneath the day-to-day custom and commerce of the City.

It used to be a hotspot for secret societies and occultists, such as Aleister Crowley and Francis Bacon. And it was here that the 17th-Century English philosopher would allegedly associate with a group of Rosicrucians — a Western esoteric movement based on Kabbalistic and gnostic thought.

This sense of rebellion is not confined to the past; swathes of millennials and Gen-Zers are turning to online occultism and ritual magic in what seems like a rebellion against modern disenchantment. 

Digital forms of New Age spirituality go especially viral on TikTok (or WitchTok) — from virtual trans-Atlantic covens gathering to cast spells on politicians (and planets), to the idea of “manifestation” that is currently in vogue. These trends are paired with politics, where magic is channelled into anti-capitalist “spiritual activism”.

Occultism tends to attract young people because it appears subversive. The idea of Francis Bacon and his cabal of Rosicrucians practising magic behind closed doors seems inherently subcultural; a mark of an “alternative lifestyle”. Even the word itself — derived from the Latin occultus, meaning “hidden” — suggests something dissident; a left-hand path leading away from the masses. Its compatibility with anti-establishment sentiments thus tends to go unquestioned. 

Today, though, these connotations are deceptive. While occultism may have been subversive in the context of 16th and 17th-century religious societies, it rapidly ceased to be so with the birth of modernity. Why? Because the heirs of Western occult philosophy were also the heirs of the secular liberalism and capitalism that dominates the West today.

Far from being a black sheep in Western intellectual history, it was Bacon — along with Hobbes, Locke, and Hume — who laid down the norms of our time. He was the father of British empiricism and the scientific method: the cornerstone of liberal, rationalistic modernity.

Bacon was one of the most proactive actors in building a world free from tradition and “superstition”. He was part of the same revolt against religion that brought about the Age of Reason, and, ultimately, the materialist dogmas upheld by contemporary science, philosophy and politics. On a more conceptual level, Western occultism came hand-in-hand with the founding principle of the modern age: Man’s domination over nature.

It is no coincidence that Bacon straddled both worlds, when both emerged from the same reaction against religion and the will to seek more “rational” and autonomous ways of arriving at truth. Liberal capitalism and occultism are both fruits of the Enlightenment. Both place man at the very centre of the universe, attempting to emancipate him from the constraints of tradition and the natural world itself. Both also attempt to manipulate nature, be that with magic or brute force. Though one clings onto a veneer of transcendence and the other admits to its own materialism, both tend towards this same end: “liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters”.

At least, this is what the early critical theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer saw as the Enlightenment’s end game. For them, the subjugation of nature that was justified by 17th century rationality was inextricably linked to “‘bourgeois liberalism” and capitalism — even though, ironically, they themselves ended up subscribing to the very materialism and atheism that defined these systems. 

Given that this subjugation of nature is precisely what motivated Bacon to pursue the occult, it is clear that Western esotericism does not subvert the impulse behind capitalism, but compliments it. Nothing sums this up more perfectly than the “magick” of Aleister Crowley, the West’s most influential occultist after Bacon, which he based on the sole principle of “do what thou wilt”; a sentiment which can hardly be distinguished from that of modern liberalism.

This overlap is strongly felt in the New Age movement of the Sixties and Seventies — a strange and self-contradictory synthesis of quasi-transcendent freedom and consumerist self-actualisation. Despite its reputation for rebellion, the flower power generation only took the grounding principle of Enlightenment liberalism a step further, overthrowing tradition and nature in ways more forceful than ever before. Their attraction to the occult was hardly subversive; it simply served the 17th century urge to make man (and now, with birth control, woman) master of nature.

Despite the deeply entangled roots of the Enlightenment and occult spirituality, the latter’s appeal is reliant on its performative claim to be an insurgency allegedly directed against the ruling forces of our society. Hence its attraction to young people as an alternative to “organised religion”, the Protestant work ethic, or whatever thin residues of traditional thought remain in the public sphere. 

But this relies on an outdated view: that there is such a thing as religious (and specifically Christian) hegemony. Numerous WitchTok videos play on this idea, sometimes stereotyping and mocking Christians for their alleged ignorance, “irrational” beliefs or lack of “critical thinking”. But far from being truly rebellious, their attitudes are simply echoes of those that govern the modern world.

WitchTok, being effectively stuck in the 17th Century, forgets that the status quo has shifted: it is now secularism that dominates in the Western world. Yet the members of its virtual covens continue to rebel against a phantom hegemony, using magic against power structures and religious dogmas that are too weak today to oppress anybody. It is out of this delusion that magic becomes merged with activism, as in the case of feminist witches hexing Trump. Despite sharing a philosophical genealogy with the modern establishment, acquiring magical power becomes a means of rising up against that establishment.

As with Francis Bacon, this power is of a distinctly individualist, rationalist kind, that looks to manipulate nature at the command of the human will — just like Adorno and Horkheimer’s “bourgeois liberalism”. Almost all of the practices that are popular on WitchTok are oriented towards personal gratification, be that “manifesting” money, beauty and success or casting hexes on enemies. Despite standing in opposition to modern capitalism, their individualism and materialism ends up succumbing to it; the very same paradox that ran through Sixties counterculture.

One could even compare WitchTokers’ attempts to “manifest” or “reality shift” (a trend of inducing alternate states of consciousness — while filming oneself, of course) to the scientific method, in line with the double legacy of Bacon. When TikTok users sift through various magical practices to find which one works for them, they are undergoing the same procedure of experimentation to arrive at empirical proof as in scientific inquiry. That is to say, they are not really “superstitious”, but committed to the principles of modern science and rationality.

Once again, TikTok’s romanticisation of witchcraft as something subversive forgets the reality that Western occultism arrived in tandem with the very Enlightenment ideologies underpinning modernity. Its desires to forge transcendence “autonomously” and “rationally” do not go against the status quo; they are the status quo’s founding principles.

In reality, to be truly subversive in this day and age would be to free oneself from the shackles of individualism. It would entail drawing wisdom from the traditions that modernity has so violently delegitimised, and submitting to nature rather than seeking to manipulate (or mutilate) it. Prospects that are unlikely to appeal to many Millennials, Gen-Zers, or TikTok witches.


Esmé Partridge is an MPhil candidate at the University of Cambridge who works at the intersection of religion, politics and culture.


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Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

Interesting piece.

I’d be surprised if many of these people who believe themselves subversive in their occultism weren’t massively overlapped with the ‘progressives’ who haven’t worked out that if you’re spouting the same socio/cultural/political talking points as the billionaire heads of globalist corporations, that you are not “The Resistance”, you’re the useful idiots.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

That’s an excellent point, agreeing I think with recent observations about the complete disconnect between progressive, would-be Socialist liberals and the blue-collar protesters against mask mandates etc. to whom the progressives would have pledged their loyalty in the past, as part of resistance movements against the Establishment.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

Like mask wearing, ‘witchcraft’ is little more than posturing by narcissistic hysterics who need to get married and have children before they inevitably become cat ladies.

Last edited 2 years ago by R Wright
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

Often, and rather oddly, the older they get, the keener they are on holding their get-togethers “sky clad”.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

And what is wrong with being a cat lady”? I have know such people, they were delightful and without them their communities would have been much the poorer as, not having children, they were able to give more time to do those things that others wanted doing but had no time for. Your answer to women doing something that you find strange (and I admit I find strange too) is to get laid, is it?

It is also a sign of hysteria to be comparing some thing that you don’t like (mask-wearing) with something else you don’t like (“witches”) when there is absolutely no connection, except perhaps in your own mind.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

“[…] is to get laid, is it?”
No, I specifically said get married and have children, or at least aim to do so. The same people that mask posture are the same people that profess to practice withcraft. Both issues symptoms of the same deeper malaise – an atomised society where few young people have serious ties and substitute cult practices for self-actualisation as human beings.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

The same people that mask posture are the same people that profess to practice withcraft
No they are not, I know people of both types and they no more overlap than they do with the general population the general population.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

I’m with Linda on this one. My ex is a crazy cat lady, and also firmly in the camp of resisting face masks, lockdowns, covid hysteria in general.
As an aside, I have always remarked, during the many protest rallies I have attended on covid measures, how diverse the crowds are. Impossible to find a ‘type’ among them. Really.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Probably because they are that rare thing these days; Normal human beings.

David Batlle
David Batlle
2 years ago

If being a cat lady was her choice, then I see nothing wrong with that. She has failed in her basic biological function, but each to his own. The problem is when such cat ladies arrive at that point because they made stupid life choices, and now they live miserable lives. That is the case with most cat ladies. Maybe not your friend, but with most. And the same miserable cat ladies, because misery loves company, try to esnare others into the same predicament.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Batlle
Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

I think you mean, ‘familiar ladies’. Yuck, yuck, yuck…

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Everybody is just bored.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

You could be right. But it’s sad if you’re young and bored, even during lock-down in our modern society there was plenty to do, although I expect for poorer people this may have not been so. However, I’m pretty sure that most of these TikTok witches don’t come under the heading of poor.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago

Tiktok is something humanity will look back on and cringe

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

” swathes of millennials and Gen-Zers are turning to online occultism and ritual magic”

I have been around a lot – seen a lot, hung with the outlandish, in outlandish lands – and am not surprised our utterly degenerate society is moving in this direction – because what I have found from an odd life is occult and witch-craft is satanism.

Useful Idiots mostly messing about mostly – but it is NOT healthy. It is not a plaything – it is a slippery slope – learn where it is going before playing with it….

Bad Things come from this stuff… I am telling you this truthfully – this is not good…. (I did not read the article, I leave this Cr*p alone, get away from it… I have seen a lot of the world – this is not for decent folk, there is no good in it, no good witchcraft….)

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

White Witches (like my late wife) are not, in accordance with their credo, allowed to use their powers for personal gain nor are they allowed to hurt others except in the defence of themselves and immediate family. My Wife had a lot of prescience, some of which has been passed down to our son and daughter. I used to find odd plants sometimes on coming home on leave. One bush had fruit which was poisonous to humans but enjoyed by Corvids. I didn’t ask about the Belladona plants and others which occasionally appeared in our ‘wilderness garden.’ She was also afraid of her powers and refused several requests by the town’s Spiritualist Church to go up to London to be assessed for further training for “Hands-on Healing.”Galeti – Yes, witch-craft does have it’s dangers so mock ye not.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

EsmĂ© Partridge is a writer who works at the intersection of faith, politics and civil society.
She’s what?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Right? What a strange address.

Stephen Magee
Stephen Magee
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

She’s probably to modest to include her PhD in witchcraft tiktok intersectionality, her Applied Diploma in toad-whispering and her boxset of Charmed.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

An excellent essay that made an uninteresting (for me) topic interesting.
I’ve always liked witchcraft. Not in a Dennis Wheatley sense but in the form of a wise woman, a healer, a practical psychologist, an interpreter of the natural world. A witch, for me, mediates between us, nature and our own subconscious. I’m not sure how any of that is compatible with TikTok although my sense is the TikTok witches are more interested in hexing Republicans than connecting with the deeper parts of human experience.

Penny Mcwilliams
Penny Mcwilliams
2 years ago

“When TikTok users sift through various magical practices to find which one works for them, they are undergoing the same procedure of experimentation to arrive at empirical proof as in scientific inquiry. That is to say, they are not really “superstitious”, but committed to the principles of modern science and rationality.”
Choosing from a menu of what makes you feel more empowered is hardly ‘scientific method’

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago

‘… the founding principle of the modern age: Man’s domination over nature.’

Genuine question: does anyone in reality advocate or attempt domination over nature?

Isn’t scientific enquiry and scientific practice about studying nature and then working with nature to our greater benefit?

All the thousands upon thousands of benefits we enjoy in the modern world – efficient agriculture, medicine, electricity, clean water, transport, the internet, and on and on – are from studying and co-operating with nature, not dominating it, aren’t they?

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

An interesting article but one that in the end struggles to provide any insight beyond ‘witches are not special’.
A deeper insight, glossed over somewhat, is that the tension between the individual and the collective Establishment has been played out for millennia. The Elite have always kept the Rude Mechanicals in their subordinate position using any means to hand. Religion, military force, economics, class attitudes, carefully calibrated democracy.
Witchcraft is one reaction against ‘knowing one’s place in society’, and like all subversive counter-Establishment ideas becomes ‘tamed’ and used by the Establishment.
In the Sixties wearing blue jeans was subversive. We all did it.

Dave Hopkins
Dave Hopkins
2 years ago

Keep in mind that the word “occult” had a different meaning in Francis Bacon’s or Newton’s time. Gravity was an occult (“hidden”), mysterious force at the time. The “occult” medicinal powers of plants were linked to certain planets or to “correspondences” with their shape, which indicated their curative powers. Gravity may still be a bit of a mystery, but we have more insight into the medicinal powers of plants (turns out, for instance, that bioflavins or melatonin in plants serve similar functions in both our bodies and theirs), but these powers were considered “hidden” or occult, or linked to the stars or the form of the plant, in the Renaissance. If we know more now, it is thanks to the experimental method developed by Francis Bacon, Boyle, and others. Not to dismiss the intuitions of alchemy and astrology, for they may have hinted at truths yet to be discovered, but the analogical and associative thinking of these early efforts to know the universe will never get us there by themselves. I think the author, however, is on the verge of flipping over a much more interesting stone: for “manifesting” and the expectation that we can shape our destiny (or body, or events) with will power has had effects on much “woke” thinking, including WitchTok. Again, imagination is a powerful force, but the reality-testing of real-world experience (or experiment) is critical.

Howard Clegg
Howard Clegg
2 years ago

But sometimes ceremonial magic appears to work. But it’s unprovable. Spooky. That’s why I stopped, the cognitive dissonance is a killer and you just go round and round and round. But is undeniably sexy when you’re in it. It feels… consequential. And fairly haluciagenic when done properly. Hence its popularity. Yo!

Howard Clegg
Howard Clegg
2 years ago

But sometimes ceremonial magic appears to work. But it’s unprovable. Spooky. That’s why I stopped, the cognitive dissonance is a killer and you just go round and round and round. But is undeniably sexy when you’re in it. It feels… consequential. And fairly haluciagenic when done properly. Hence its popularity. Yo!

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Human behaviours all have a bell curve. The vast majority of us sit somewhere in the middle. That’s how stereotypes exist. They identify behaviours that are recognisable in large groups of people sharing similar characteristics.

The outliers get smaller and smaller in number, the more outlandish their behaviour becomes.

Tiny numbers of nutters on the outer edges of the bell curve have nothing to teach us about overall human behaviour, and are rarely people of any interest.

Why does Unherd (by no means alone amongst the media) keep giving us these tales of the weird and the wacky in tones that imply they are trends that have some relevance to anybody but the weirdo’s concerned?

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

It’s not very adult is it?

Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper
2 years ago

Excellent article. Patrick Deneen couldn’t have said better. Tik Tok and Bacon do seem counter intuitive but the use of science and magic in the lame project of ‘liberal’ self -realisation are pretty spot on. Perhaps my only criticism is that Bacon’s occult interests were pretty different from those that obscenely killed about 60,000 ‘witches’ in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries eg Matthew Hopkins from Suffolk. Not very enlightened.

john zac
john zac
2 years ago

Thank you it is exactly what I needed

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

Just for the record this year marks the 300th anniversary of the last Witch burning in the UK, performed in June, 1722.

As you may have guessed it was in Scotland, far to the north in the little town of Dornoch. The unfortunate Witch, a retarded women in this case, was stripped naked, smeared in pitch, taken to the edge of the town and incinerated*alive, much to the joy of the local populous.

(* Earlier in 17th England the normal method of execution for Witches was hanging.)

RD Richards
RD Richards
2 years ago

Insightful piece, thanks Esmé. This is a useful linkage to make in the overall scheme of things.