Narcissistic Gnosticism: A 21st Century Political Religion

20 November 2021

by Dr. James Alexander

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Those of us on the side of truth, right, justice and common sense are extremely puzzled by the beliefs which enable those who have changed the world for the worse, even if only for a year or two, to claim that everything is normal.

The sharpest insights about our contemporary crisis have not come from academic philosophers but from marginal figures like Georgio Agamben, Bret Weinstein, Jonathan Sumption and the benign Reverends of Irreverend. Anyone who doubts this should consider the anodyne observations about neoliberalism made by academics in Theory and Event or the abject capitulation by figures like Slavoj Zizek to pandemic protocols. Nothing exceeds in preposterousness the defence of masks put out by Zizek. Who needs the face? he asked. One of his arguments was that Freud had said that seeing someone’s face was inadvisable when being psychoanalysed. As if our relation to all other humans is that of subject to shrink! Another was that the face lies, but that eyes tell the truth.

On the other hand, C. J. Hopkins has contributed something significant to Covid Studies with his reflections on “The Covidian Cult“. Dr. Will Jones has taken everything further by harnessing Covid together with Climate and Wokery (all of the politically correcting, identity politicking, social justice warrioring, critical race theorising, virtue signalling, grievance studying bag of tricks) as one of three elements of an ‘unholy trinity’ of a new totalitarianism, which I have called ‘Nice Totalitarianism‘.

We are clearly (those of us who are critical, sceptical, reasonable, what you will) in search of a language to express our incredulity at the massed forces of conspiracy, corruption, collusion and compliance. We often hear it said that anyone who espouses any aspect of Nice Totalitarianism is a believer in a ‘religion’. The particular point of C. J. Hopkins was that what makes Covid unique is that it is a cult; that its exponents exhibit the sort of conviction and anger we would expect to find if we encountered a cult. He argued that the oddity of this cult is that it is not a minority cult, but a majority cult. In the terms laid down by Ernst Troeltsch in his great volumes on the history of Christianity, it is not a sect but a church. We critics, sceptics, and reasonables are now, against our inclination, the sectarians.

If the current ideology is a church, then it looks as if it has been built as rapidly as the temporary hospitals which the Chinese could erect in less than a week; but of course things have been brewing for a long time. There were many who offered warnings, pre-eminently Christopher Booker, not to mention older figures like Julien Benda or Joseph de Maistre. But here I want to consider some of the thoughts, and terms, of two figures: the American diagnostician of what had gone wrong in America since the 1960s, Christopher Lasch, and the German émigré who admired the American culture of before the 1960s, Eric Voegelin. In short: Lasch alleged that modern culture is narcissistic, and Voegelin alleged that modern ideology is gnostic.

I want to put these together and explore the thought that not only Covid but also the other two elements of this new political religion exhibit common traits which can be made sense of by calling them narcissistic gnosticism.

Narcissism concerns our fear of death, our desire to live, our awkwardness about our bodies, our fear of commitment, our preoccupation with appearing to be what we want ourselves to be, and our veneration of celebrity; it finds its symbolic poles in the objective surface world of television and the subjective inner world requiring therapy. Lasch observed its rise in the 1960s. The narcissist oscillates between the possibility of objective fame and the certainty of inner emptiness. An oscillation which has only swung wider and wider as social media and smart phones, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok, have all encouraged everyone to externalise their own narcissism so that they ape celebrity status and publicise their own continual attempts at therapy. When academics post pictures of themselves with slogans like “I am against authority but I took the vaccine” or write blogs about Heidegger and ‘Long Covid’ we know we are in greater trouble than even Lasch could have anticipated.

Gnosticism is older. It is necessary to briefly refer to the antique gnosticism of the second century, which was a doctrine opposed to, and sometimes confused with, Christianity. It postulated that the world had suffered a catastrophe, that matter was corruption, that the body was corrupt, and that salvation took the form of a secret doctrine, an esoteric truth which was accessible only to an elite. This was an antique doctrine. But Voegelin used the word gnosticism to explain a medley of modern ideologies, including communism and fascism. By modern gnosticism he meant the view that the world is flawed, that some sort of obscure absolute truth exists which can enable us to remove the flaw, and that if we hold this truth then we can be spared responsibility for the flaw, that we can blame others for it, and that we can save ourselves through our own efforts. Spirit can be renewed if we liberate it from material constraints. Reason is no part of this picture. Voegelin spoke of “a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special gift of a spiritual or cognitive elite”. Most of our activist politics is now based on such a vision, and this vision is necessarily an elite vision.

We are all, most of us, many of us, narcissists. Only some of us are gnostics. But the gnostic elite has managed to convert a significant part of the narcissistic mass to its politics.

We should be able to see the contemporary affinity between narcissism as cause and gnosticism as consequence. The thin notes of the narcissist echo in the depth of the refusal of the gnostic to submit his or her doctrine to ‘critical reflection’.

Let us consider the three forms of our current ideology in terms of narcissistic gnosticism. We should note that each involves a narcissistic preoccupation with the appearance of the self and hatred of the reality of the self, but does not involve a Christian desire to repent and seek forgiveness for sin. Each involves a gnostic desire to blame someone or something else for an evil.

Of these three forms, Covid sets the ‘gold standard’. If you ever ask yourself why Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion have formed sideshows to the glory that was Lockdown, consider the fact that the evil for the covidian is a virus.

The other two evils are in some way caused by us. The evil for the climatist is carbon emission. The evil for the wokeist is privilege. We have to blame ourselves, as humanity, for them. Even though, after we have got that generalised guilt out of the way, we can then turn on one half of the population and find it guilty of not understanding its guilt in the right way, guilty of not expiating it, and guilty of perpetuating it. However, matters are different with Covid. The virus was not caused by us. As you may remember, any suggestion that it was caused by human activity was quickly suppressed. This is an explanation of why it was so important for everyone to deny that the virus emerged out of human activity, which is why all the laboratory leak gain-of-function revelations were quickly called a ‘conspiracy’. The reason was that the virus had to be pristine. We needed the innocent pangolin. The pangolin whitewashed the human race, made us all victims, granted us a collective original innocence which enabled us to claim a collective solidarity which was always lacking elsewhere. We were all noble savages, for a moment, assailed in our innocence by the same spiky beelzebub.

Covid took over the world in 2020 in a way that Climate and Wokery could not have done, and have not yet done, though both came before and both are following Covid quick behind, because Covid dramatised the world in terms of a battle between a sanctified and purified humanity and a pestilence. Later on, those who were dirty and allowed the pestilence to spread and refused to take part in attempts to mitigate its spread – those ‘sceptics’ and ‘deniers’ who disliked masks, distancing, lockdown and vaccines – were guilty. But this was rather different from the logic of Climate and Wokery where, no matter how hard one strains to assert one’s own purity one feels that, even while one is protesting at COP26, or taking the knee at a football match, one is guilty by association. We have all benefited from slavery, and we have all benefited from the factories, refineries and power stations that enabled us to put an end to slavery, or, at least, explicit slavery. We are all tarred by the brush of exploiting others and exploiting nature. Covid lacks any taint of this. This is why many politicians like Covid. It can be used without any hesitation, as it does not involve them in any obvious hypocrisy, unlike Climate or Wokery.

Be that as it may, each of the branches of narcissistic gnosticism finds a certain class guilty, and the logic of narcissistic gnostic politics is that you had better avow your guilt in relation to Climate and Wokery, apologise for factories, slaves, institutional racism, unconscious bias, exploitation of any old-fashioned sort, and you had better avoid any possible guilt in relation to Covid by continuing to wear the mask.

Narcissism makes us focus on the self. Gnosticism offers us an escape from the self. If the body is corrupt, and if modern gnosticism adds to the corruption of the body as well as the corruption of the historic body politic, then salvation comes in the form of purifying not only one’s own body by identifying as being whatever one pleases, but also purifying the historic body politic by closing coal power stations, building wind turbines, returning artefacts to the successor states of those they were taken from, removing statues or memorials associated with the slave trade or any other objectionable form of exploitation. The purification will take whatever form the gnostic elites suggest, since they are in charge of the obscure scientific models and harsh visionary moralities.

Gnosticism also made much of esoteric rituals. Again we have to notice the superiority of Covid to Climate and Wokery in this regard. All have their representatives: Fauci, Greta, Meghan, and so on. But as a symbol the mask outdoes anything the other branches of Nice Totalitarianism have achieved. Climate has nothing, no signifier, no way of marking us out. We may lie down on the M25, but there is no other useful ritual; no way of ‘acting out’ our extinction rebelliousness (no way of breathing in carbon dioxide, for instance). Meanwhile, Wokery has ‘taking the knee’. But the problem with this is that it is momentary, despite its heavy supplicatory symbolism. One cannot walk home from a football match while taking the knee. Until, perhaps, the day when we have all had transitioning surgery, the mask will remain the most powerful signifier of narcissistic gnosticism because it is a ritual form of dress which is directly related to the guilt and to the salvation, and it can be seen at all times. It has to be worn everywhere. It is a continual emblem of ritual purity. Fascinatingly, is it not remarkable that it covers the face, thus ostentatiously overcoming our own obvious narcissism, while expressing a dislike of our actual bodies?

The unifying doctrine of narcissistic gnosticism is as follows: there are great flaws in the world, and they are not my fault. I know, because I have been told by the elite, the truth about how to remove these flaws. I know how to act in such a way that I indicate that I know this. Knowing this is more or less my entire politics. The flaws vary in their origin and status.

The flaw of Climate is historic and collective. We are all, as humanity, ultimately responsible. But some are more guilty than others. Our ancestors. We shall distance ourselves from our ancestors by abandoning all their practices, including industrial and economic practices.

The flaw of Wokery is historic but not collective. We are not all responsible for slavery, exploitation, and heteronormativity. We shall distance ourselves from those in the past who engaged in slavery and exploitation by disavowing any inheritance from them and urging on each other our rejection of the sorts of privilege we associate with those old forms of slavery and exploitation. We shall disavow heteronormativity, perhaps in word alone, perhaps also in deed.

The flaw of Covid is not historic but it is collective. No one is to blame for the origin of this flaw. But since this fact unites humanity more simply in a battle of good against evil than is evident even in those relatively clearly morally closed questions of Climate and Wokery, we can turn upon the ‘deniers’ of our salvational rituals and practices with extreme violence and condemnation. We shall literally and figuratively distance ourselves from them. As for the virus itself, it is the purest enemy that humanity has ever had. Condemning this enemy has so far not involved humanity in any self-hatred. This is absolutely important because, to the narcissist, self-hatred is difficult to bear.

These are the three grand forms taken by narcissistic gnosticism. Each has its own doctrine of what is the problem, who is the enemy, who is the victim, what is the solution, and where is the elite which possesses the scientific and moral truth about all of this.

As a pleasant nuance, if Covid and Climate seem to be excessively draconian, they appear to be modified by the pleasantly diversified self-identifications permitted by Wokery. This is why Western totalitarians are generally in favour of it, and why it is included in the triad. In the West there is still the need to placate liberals and make concessions to ‘civil society’.

The West is now being run by a narcissistic gnostic elite, which is being supported by a vast church of those who have been appealed to by narcissistic gnostic beliefs. These beliefs all enable the members of this religion to identify an enemy, to adopt a politics, and to sanction the miscellaneous and likely unrelated purposes of the elite. The beliefs are beyond critical reflection. Believers want to live forever in a world without material corruption, without material destruction, without material suffering caused to anyone.

They want a world without individual death, without mass death by apocalypse, and without social death by stigmatisation. But the strait gate through which these souls have to pass involves continual meditation on and ritual abasement about individual deaths by virus, the possibility of mass death by human-caused climate change, and the ubiquity of social death by stigmatisation including historic and unconscious stigmatisation.

For the first time in history, common sense has been ostracised. The irony is that to the followers of this narcissistic gnostic religion, those of us who remain critical, sceptical or simply reasonable are the ones who appear to be members of a cult.

Dr. James Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.