Traditionalism, anarchism and the urgent need for righteous revolt: a dialogue

This is an in-depth conversation with fellow Winter Oak contributor W.D. James, who teaches philosophy in Kentucky, USA, and runs the Philosopher’s Holler blog.

W.D. James: What first attracted me to your thought was your bringing together of Traditionalism (or Perennialism) and anarchism. How did you first come upon the Traditionalists and what interested you in that line of thought?

Paul Cudenec: I first came across René Guénon by chance, if there is such a thing, when my ex-wife spotted the title of his The Crisis of the Modern World in a secondhand bookshop and, knowing my views (only too well!), thought it might interest me. It obviously did and I quickly got hold of other Guénon works such as East and West and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times. I was excited at finding a solid intellectual and metaphysical basis for what had, until then, been more or less an instinctive personal dislike of modernity, fuelled by green anarchist thinking.

I also felt that there was a compatibility here with anarchist ideas. No, in fact, I knew this to be the case because they slotted so perfectly together in my mind, along with the thought of the likes of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell that I had been exploring at the time. I first quoted Guénon in the form of footnotes to We Anarchangels of Creative Destruction, a piece of writing which I distributed as a free A5 pamphlet at the 2011 London Anarchist Bookfair and which can today be found in the book Antibodies, Anarchangels and Other Essays.

Looking back, I see that I was enthused by his definition of progress as “a profound decadence, continuously accelerating, which is dragging humanity toward the pit where pure quantity reigns” and his insistence that the modern world’s “development of industry and machinery”, seeking to “dominate matter and bend it to their service” only led to our slavery.

I still mentally picture industrial development as resembling “the movement of a mobile body running down a slope and going faster as it approaches the bottom”.

Guénon voiced perfectly my own intuition that the world of industry and business operates on a lower level than that which humanity is capable of achieving, that its domination of our world amounts to a debasement of the human condition.

In contrasting the “solely material and sentimental” aspirations of contemporary anti-culture with the traditional metaphysical pursuit of truth, Guénon helped me to express the important understanding that the modern world involves not just the loss of freedom and closeness to nature that was expressed in green anarchist literature, but also a loss of intellect.

I was relieved to find that Guénon regarded nationalism as essentially opposed to the traditional outlook and I recognised a distinctly anarchist note in his declaration that “the great ability of those who are in control in the modern world lies in making the people believe that they are governing themselves”.

His insights into the agenda behind modernity were also a perfect fit for me. He writes, for instance: “Let there be no confusion on this point: if the general public accepts the pretext of ‘civilization’ in all good faith, there are those for whom it is no more than mere moralistic hypocrisy, serving as a mask for designs of conquest or economic ambitions”.

It was only later, thanks to reading secondary literature, notably by Mark Sedgwick, that I discovered Guénon’s personal connection to the Sufi anarchist Ivan Aguéli and the intellectual anarchism of his fellow Perennialist Ananda Coomaraswamy.

By January 2012 I was writing about “rediscovering anarcho-perennialism“, citing a particular parallel between Traditionalist thought and the writing of the German-Jewish “mystical” anarchist Gustav Landauer. From that point onwards, the Perennialist element became one of the main pillars of my personal philosophy.

So how about you, W.D.? What path led you to an interest in Traditionalist thought?

James: I’m starting to think everyone comes across the Traditionalists without meaning to. In my case without even recognizing it at first.

Back in school, a group of friends and I were trying to think our way out of philosophical materialism. I was writing my dissertation trying to make connections between European romanticism on the one hand and the American transcendentalists and pragmatists on the other, showing that both of the latter were trying to confront what at the time I was calling ‘sociological skepticism’. By that I meant the acidic effects of modernity on cultural, social, and political cohesion and meaning.

Unfortunately, I lost my optimism about the prospects of that project before I defended my dissertation (though I did defend it), largely because of a couple of theologians I read as part of that project: Paul Tillich on religion and cultural cohesion and Reinhold Niebuhr as a critic of the pragmatists. I felt that the religious language these guys could bring to the issues was actually very helpful. It was also a religious language laden with metaphysical concerns.

I also discovered that I loved Plato and his ideas on the order of the soul and of the cosmos.

With my group of friends, we were reading religious scholars like Mircea Eliade and Rudolf Otto. Somewhere as part of that we got to reading Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions and I ended up loving his Forgotten Truth, which is a very readable outline of the Traditionalist framework.

However, I was just thinking of him as one more scholar of religion, not realizing that there was the whole background of Traditionalism that he was operating from within. What I loved about Smith was the parallel between Platonic philosophy and the metaphysics he was arguing lay behind all the major world religions. That really added scope to that basic view, and I was pretty much hooked.

Since then, I’ve delved into other Traditionalists like Guénon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Lord Northbourne. They provide a good critique of the modern world and a versatile hierarchical view of reality that keeps things connected with the transcendent. I think one needs some sort of elevated worldview, probably rooted in pre-modernity, to struggle along in this world of ours and to make sense of it.

Speaking of hierarchy though, this is where your ideas were especially provocative for me. I was used to the interpretation of the Traditionalists that understood them as supporting the idea that cosmic metaphysical hierarchy (say, the ‘great chain of being’ idea: something like ‘the absolute’ on top, then humans in the middle linking the transcendent/spiritual realm with the earthly/material realm and ultimately with something like sludge on the bottom of the chain) implied a social hierarchy as well.

In this regard they sometimes reference the Hindu caste system (with its priestly class on top, then a military class, then what we might of think of as businesspeople with ultimately those beyond the pale at the bottom) as a social system reflective of Traditional metaphysics, but you take quite a different path with it.

Traditionalists who would fall within a group of thinkers I have classed together as ‘aristocratic anti-modernists’ in my recent writing would defend the political hierarchy interpretation. For instance, Alexander Dugin, in Political Platonism, presents the Traditionalist metaphysics in terms of the contrast between the One (the unity at the top of being) and the Many (the unformed sludge at the bottom). I think he is right that this is the basic Traditionalist metaphysics. The lower aspects of reality must stay in touch with the unity at the top to maintain cohesion, order, purpose, and meaning (you could think of the One as the Spirit that animates the many, Nature I suppose).

On his view, modernity is the severing of the connection with the One and the liberation, or really, just the cutting loose, of the Many, which is just chaos. Politically, he draws anti-liberal and anti-democratic (which Aristotle had defined as rule by the Many) conclusions arguing that the modern world is a ‘Devilopolis’ (the city of the Devil, in that it has abolished metaphysics and fallen as low as it is possible to fall metaphysically).

I’m sure you disagree with that sort of political conclusion. Do you agree with the basic idea that the Traditionalists support a metaphysically hierarchical cosmos though?

Cudenec: Yes, the idea of “higher” and “lower” levels is obviously very much part of traditional metaphysics. What I disagree with is the idea of slapping that notion inappropriately on to the social and political realm.

I’ve had this discussion in the past with anarchists who have reacted angrily to my use of the terms “higher” and “lower” in a metaphysical context, taking this as a contradiction of our shared political viewpoint. I suppose they would argue that just as the idea of God as Supreme Authority has been abused to justify supposedly god-approved worldly authority, so does the notion of metaphysical hierarchy risk reinforcing social hierarchy. And, yes, your example of the Hindu caste system could easily be invoked by anarchist anti-Traditionalists to back up that point.

Personally, I don’t believe that metaphysical notions of higher and lower find their social equivalent in hierarchies as currently understood in our society. After all, one of the key metaphysical hierarchical distinctions (often stressed by Guénon) is between quantity (low) and quality (high). Political or social hierarchy, in contemporary society, is based on political and economic power, which from a Traditionalist point of view equates to lowness! We therefore have to look elsewhere for the earthly manifestation of metaphysical hierarchy than in the purely quantitative distinction between the powerful and the powerless, the materially rich and the materially poor.

I would say that the real hierarchy among human beings is qualitative, which does not at all relate to quantitative status. Indeed, traditional religions tend to regard quantitative achievement (being rich, for instance) as being at the low end of the qualitative scale – take Jesus’s comments about a rich man’s chances of going to heaven. Authentic spiritual-ethical codes (such as that proposed by Sufism) often positively present the shedding of material wealth and status as a necessary step in achieving a higher place on the qualitative hierarchical ladder.

For me, the co-option of the metaphysical concept of hierarchy to justify material wealth and power is thus nothing less than its complete inversion!

James: Yes, showing that holding to a hierarchical metaphysics does not entail mapping that onto a social hierarchy seems essential to me.

Before I encountered your thought, I assumed anarchists would tend towards an anti-metaphysical position by necessity. Maybe I picked that idea from Bakunin or somewhere; the ‘no gods, no masters’ idea. I had taken ‘no gods’ to imply no transcendent order. You helped me see though that a well-founded anarchism needs a principle of natural, metaphysical, order to support the faith that we can create good social order organically (ie, we don’t need the state, Leviathan, imposing order through the exercise of power). Maybe that should be sort of obvious and maybe is to everyone else in the world, but it came as a sort of revelation to me that made me rethink my understanding of anarchism as a position.

I was still skeptical that the Traditionalists could be reconciled with anarchism though. So, it came as a surprise when you pointed out in one of your books that Ananda Coomaraswamy, a core member of that school, had actually proposed anarchism.

I was familiar with Guénon’s Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, where he outlines what I took to be the standard Traditionalist position supporting a social hierarchy. There he references both the Hindu caste system and Dante’s defense of the two swords of Papal and Imperial authority in the context of medieval society. More recently when I went back to look at Guénon’s argument more closely, I was pleased to find that he suggests in a previous age (what we would probably think of as a ‘mythical golden age’ but which I think he accepts as an actual historical age) humans were universally enlightened by metaphysical truth so that the spiritual and temporal were united and that there was just one caste. So, at least in some past situation, he was suggesting that the metaphysical hierarchy was reflected in an egalitarian social structure.

What Guénon situated in the past, Coomaraswamy was willing to locate in the future as an aspiration. In his essay “Individualism, Autonomy and Function,” he defends the repudiation of tyranny and government authority. He distinguishes two approaches an anarchism might take. The first he calls the way of “self-assertion”. One rebels against the imposition of power to preserve individual autonomy. However, taking that approach results in chaos because we are just left with unconnected individuals all jealously defending their liberty but without any shared principle of order or cooperation.

The other approach he calls the way of “self-renunciation” which centers on the rejection of a “will to govern.” He says this is the way, and the form of anarchy, compatible with spontaneous order. However, for that to emerge there has to be a shared understanding of our natural unity. In that essay he says the necessary commitment is to a metaphysics of “monism”: essentially that all is ultimately one.

He says the future project is to develop this into a universal awareness which will spawn new religious forms which will make spontaneous social order possible. He concedes that might be a hard thing to accomplish, but basically says, ‘hey, why not aim for the ideal—at least you’ll move in the right direction’.

That bowled me over. A Traditionalist explicitly advocating anarchism and talking about new religious forms which would still be connected to the primordial intuition of metaphysical truth!

Cudenec: Indeed! The fact that this is so surprising today is, I suppose, a reflection not just of the oft-corrupted contemporary presentation of Traditionalism, but also of the direction that anarchism has taken over the last century. For me, this aspect of simultaneously looking back and forward to a golden age – with the current situation merely a temporary blip to be rectified by revolutionary activity – is an essential element of the overall anarchist idea.

But the vision of anarchism held by people today, even by those who adopt that political label, is so reduced and degraded that that kind of spiritual depth is no longer visible. That has been part of my mission over the last dozen years, in fact – to try to influence contemporary anarchist thinking to the point that its adherents could appreciate what Coomaraswamy was saying.

Ultimately the aim would be to reunite anarchism with the metaphysics of which I think it is the political form. Unfortunately, this hasn’t really worked, in that “mainstream” anarchists (whatever that could possibly mean!) have rejected my interpretation of the philosophy. Sometimes I think they are correct and that, whether I like it or not, historical anarchism has always been heavily influenced by scientism, materialism and the progressivism of the general left. It was when I was in one of those phases that I decided to present my own version of anarchism as “organic radicalism” – thus abandoning the struggle for “ownership” rights of the anarchist philosophy.

But at other times I feel that the anarchist tradition contains so much value that I should continue to embrace it. I also don’t like the idea that I could be pushed out of the anarchosphere by individuals and groups that I don’t regard as really espousing anarchism!

Any thoughts on that, W.D.?

James: I got interested in Organic Radicalism from the Traditionalist angle, not the anarchist angle. So, I’m definitely something of an outsider looking in at the struggles you are talking about, though my respect for anarchism has grown.

As you have previously expressed it, Organic Radicalism is a development of anarchism which subsumes anarchism and develops it further just as anarchism had subsumed socialism and developed it more fully. So, to be an Organic Radical would mean one is also by necessity an anarchist and a socialist. It’s sort of like a set of Russian nesting dolls. The outer one fully contains the inner one but also makes it ‘bigger’.

At least the OrgRad label is yours, so I’m hesitant to contest your interpretation on any point. However, part of your idea is that you aren’t creating a school of thought but rediscovering and developing a very old tradition of thought within the contemporary context and expressing it in ways that make it accessible for building a future. I think that is right. Viewed in that way, I wonder if it isn’t better to think of it more as a pool into which various streams flow? Certainly you could get there from the anarchist stream. Maybe you could get there from the socialist stream without really adopting anarchism? Maybe there are other streams as well. If anarchism is the politics actually implied by traditionalism, could you get to OrgRad first, then develop anarchist tendencies later?

Personally, I feel the OrgRad pool might be fed by many rivers. This is not to make it so vague that it ceases to have meaning. The central ideas are the central ideas. I just think that in our current political context a lot of things are opened up and a person might get to that pool of ideas via any number of paths. If that set of ideas is true, one would expect people to converge on them from various directions: that is how the magnet of truth operates. What do you think of switching metaphors from Russian nesting dolls to the pool fed by streams?

In terms of your agonized relationship to the rest of contemporary anarchism, I think the general principle of fighting for value where you find it applies there. Not everything of value is nicely tied up in one bundle. If you see a lot of value in the anarchist tradition, as you clearly do, fight for it. Hang on to it. There is not a superabundance of good things in our civilization right now. Personally, I don’t want to give up anything good without a fight. At least some anarchists seem to get what you are offering and are really turned on by it. At least some of the others don’t actually seem to be people who are into imaginative or profound ideas. Maybe they will be at some point. For now, they probably aren’t your audience.

People with intellectual integrity will respect you for that. People without that integrity aren’t too much worth worrying about. Fight for what you love! What else are we going to fight for?

Cudenec: You’re right that if the philosophy I am seeking to revive amounts to a political manifestation of something old and true, then its discovery is not going to be dependent on any particular contemporary political path. Perhaps my initial presentation of the orgrad idea was too closely based on my own political trajectory, which passed through anarchism to reach where it is now.

As you know, I have recently been exploring the idea of convergence, the flowing of diverse authentic streams into the one pool that you were talking about. It seems to me, for instance, that behind nationalism, if you strip away all the flag-waving subjectivity and cultural boasting, there must lie a core motivating value of something like self-determination. “We must have the freedom to live our lives in the way we wish, without being told what to do by people whom we not regard as part of our community”.

This principle, applied more broadly, is shared by anarchism. What is perhaps missing from certain anarchist visions, however, is a valuing of traditional heritage and cultural belonging. These are often regarded as vestiges of an old order, standing in the way of social advance and those who emphasise their importance are thus condemned as “reactionary”.

The organic radical attitude is, on the other hand, that specific traditions and cultures are bulwarks against the tyranny of centralised power, which is why they have to be removed by those who wish to dominate and exploit us. From this perspective it becomes clear that those on the left who applaud the sweeping away of traditional cultures, customs and codes are – consciously or not – collaborating with the destructive activity of centralised power.

This is a criticism of the ‘left’ usually associated with the ‘right’, but which in no way contradicts or undermines the parts of the orgrad outlook that would generally be considered ‘left-wing’.

In this way I think that orgrad, as well as voicing the view that the old ‘left’ and ‘right’ categories have no meaning, actively shows this to be the case, by presenting a coherent philosophy which embraces aspects of both.

James: I agree that a healthy nationalism is probably largely about self-determination. That could be seen in many of the anti-colonial and liberation movements of the 20th century: valuing and reviving the ‘local’ culture was often part of those struggles, in opposition to the imposed culture of the colonial power.

I’m particularly fond of local and regional (that is subnational) cultures. That is probably more aesthetic than explicitly political: I like local cultures, local music, local dialects, local food, etc…. It’s just a better world when there are lots of differences. Those do pose obstacles to the globalizing machine though, so tend to come under attack and have their material basis undermined.

Of course, the vexed issue of ‘identity’ is bound up with these sorts of ideas.

In general, I’m a diversity within unity sort of guy. That is also a version of the ‘one and the many’ metaphysical issue mentioned earlier. You can go too far toward either side: too much unity or too much diversity. With people, I think yes, we are human first (unity). But isn’t it marvelous how many ways that shared humanity has manifested itself historically in all the different cultures, religions, etc… that we have built (the many).

If you say there is only difference, then it’s hard to figure out how we’d ever come together or on what basis we would foster mutual respect. If you say there is, or ought to be, only unity, then that ends up being oppressive to those who wish to retain their particularity and, I think, dehumanizing as the particular is also a part of what it is to be a human. Both sides are real and valuable.

So, when that is applied to the issue of identity, I see problems with both what would usually be thought of as the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ approaches that put too much emphasis on the ‘many/difference’ side. I think that is actually very common currently and they end up feeding off of one another, driving us to a very bad place socially.

However, I don’t think the answer is a bland universalism where all difference is erased: I associate that with the neo-liberal effort to reduce us all to consumers, including consumers of identities—superficial identities you get by buying certain products. I think a healthy identity is always going to be a back and forth play between the unifying theme of our shared human nature and the diversifying theme of particular cultures and histories. In various contexts, one or the other will come to the fore, but never in such a way that it eradicates the other.

How do you think the issue of ‘identity’ fits into all of this?

Cudenec: ‘Identity’ is yet another one of those slippery terms that means different things to different people! I’d apply it to our overall sense of who we are, which would include our family history and background, the culture inherited from our family, the culture absorbed during our lifetimes, the places we have lived, the food we have eaten, the people we have known, the work we have done, the thoughts we have thought, the dreams we have dreamed… Our individual identity is thus unique, but parts of it overlap with that of others, opening up areas of affinity that are often hard to pin down or label.

Our personal identity is also always evolving, along with the circumstances that help shape it. Although I have friends in the UK whom I have known for 30 or 40 years, the friends in my everyday life today are not the same as they were even 10 years ago. Although I am English, the people I have been closest to in life have often had different roots. I still feel great attachment to the English countryside and what’s left of its traditional rural culture, but I also feel spiritually connected to the hills, forests and rivers of the Cévennes by which I am now surrounded.

The question of anybody’s identity is infinitely complex, which is why it is so ridiculous to reduce it to a question of being “black” or “white”, “Muslim” or “Jewish”, “British”, “French”, “American” or whatever.

This ties in with what you were saying about local cultures. While I can see that nationalists want to protect culture from global standardisation, their fetishisation of “the nation” can blind them to the fact that this entity is also a central, standardising, culture-crushing one.

The same would be true on any level. If local culture involved declaring that in Ourshire we should all think and talk and dress and behave in Our shared way, it would be a microcosm of the centralising nation-state. An organic community would naturally involve the emergence of an Our way of seeing and doing things, but this has to come from below.

Something living and ever-evolving can perhaps be described, with a certain approximation, but it certainly can’t be defined from above and then regarded as if it can never amount to anything more than that definition.

I agree with you that a “bland universalism” is not a healthy approach to identity, but I think that this kind of one-size-fits-all “universalism” is a reduction – yet another modern degradation! – of what the idea really implies. Contemporary thinking always seems to be setting up fake binary oppositions for which the only solution is some sort of middle-ground “compromise” that betrays the essence of both the original insights.

I see that there is an unnameable Whole which contains the successive Russian dolls of the universe, the earth and the human species. But I also see that this Whole is only actually alive through the individual beings at the reality-fronting level of this cosmic reality. You and I (and all our fellow creatures) are the nerve endings by which it feels, the lungs with which it breathes, the brain cells with which it thinks, the feet on which it walks.

The diversity of our identities, inclinations, intuitions and interventions is the organic living of the Whole. There is no contradiction between universality and particularity, any more than there is a contradiction between a forest and the trees within it, the physical form of a book and its contents, or a political movement and the individuals who make it up.

James: You’ve alluded several times to the fact that orgrad doesn’t fit into contemporary political categories very well and specifically to how many contemporary anarchists have issues with bringing in the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of it.

I think that probably has to do with how orgrad transcends any narrow conception of politics. It is at least ‘metapolitical’. It’s been a long time since it was normal to situate a politics within a larger metaphysical and spiritual framework. However, it seems to me that is a particularly urgent need in our time.

Can you say a bit more about why especially the spiritual part is absolutely essential to orgrad (and maybe a bit more about what ‘spiritual’ means in this context)?

Cudenec: The spiritual aspect is, firstly, the metaphysical framing that enables a holistic political understanding. If there is such a thing as a living Whole embracing absolutely everything, then the same concept naturally follows down the metaphorical ladder. There is such a thing as a living planet, there is such an organism as humankind, authentic bottom-up communities do amount to (shifting, overlapping, ever-evolving) living entities.

Secondly, this conception also brings with it a sense of coherence and purpose. The universe is not just some random swirl of matter caused by an inexplicable explosion, which has happened to spawn what we identify as life, but is the self-manifestation, the coming-into-being, of the living Whole. There is inherent pattern and purpose within the cosmos, the living world and human beings. This purpose forms part of the structure of the human mind, if often only on the unconscious level.

The importance of spirituality to the individual is that it encourages them to be receptive to this innate meaning and purpose, an awareness of which goes hand in hand with an awareness of our ultimate belonging to the Whole. The aim for each of us, in our lives, is to carry out the purpose for which we were intended, as part of the flowering of the Whole on the terrestrial plane.

The ideas of beauty, good and nature are often closely related in human minds, alongside the notion of freedom, which is our ability to do (individually and collectively) what we wish to do, what feels right to do, what we were always meant to do.

One of the blockages to this natural, good and beautiful mode of being, in harmony with the overall purpose of the Whole, is our individual ego. This, obviously, is why spiritual traditions emphasise the need to overcome the hold it can have on our thoughts and behaviour.

The individual also faces an external threat from the ego-centred power of other individuals who conspire to prevent him or her from having the freedom to act naturally, in accordance with overall good.

In a contemporary context this obstacle is the system in all its aspects – its authority, its policing, its expropriation, its industrialism, its brainwashing… Overcoming his or her own ego is not going to be enough to allow the individual to act freely in these conditions, as there are solid physical restrictions in the way.

At this stage, spirituality is therefore obliged to take on a new form. Instead of simply being the wisdom to live naturally and properly, as part of the unfolding purpose of the Whole, it has to become the determination to break down the obstacle in its way, so that life can again thrive as it is meant to.

This pro-active spirituality, this warrior spirituality if you like, allows us to channel the positive energy of the Whole.

When we put aside the ego and its fear of death, we become a powerful means by which the Whole can overcome a blockage to its healthy evolution. We fully and consciously become what we always really were – a part of the Whole.

When we make our body and brain available to the Whole, it can live through us in order to reassert the goodness of its natural unfolding.

The uprising that we so urgently need, in order to bring down the criminocracy, can only happen if sufficient numbers of us take that spiritual step.

Authentic political revolt therefore depends on a widespread spiritual awakening that allows people to become the means by which life and goodness can reassert themselves against malevolent elements impeding their natural unfolding.

An understanding of this is central to the organic radical vision, I would say.

James: Well, that is rather elegantly stated, I must say. I like that basic dynamic of both the ego and structures of domination being blockages and, hence, calling us forward to a spirituality of both wisdom and a warrior element.

The second aspect suggests to me the need for what we might think of as noble character: the formation of a character with sufficient strength and vitality to take heroic action (risk, self-sacrifice in service to a worthy cause, that sort of thing).

If that is roughly correct, there is what might appear, superficially, to be a contradiction between a politics that is essentially egalitarian and the need to cultivate nobility of spirit. I don’t think there is actually any contradiction. Certainly, any revolutionary or rebel in history who fought and sacrificed for an egalitarian cause had to have many heroic virtues to stay the course.

Is that in line with what you are saying?

Cudenec: I would say that any erroneous impression of a necessary contradiction here can only stem from the degradation in the use and understanding of language that tragically appears to be part of the general cultural and intellectual decline in the modern industrial world.

It is quite normal that one word should have several distinct possible meanings – you only have to browse through the definitions offered by a dictionary to see how frequently that is the case.

Normally, human intelligence allows us to sort out the particular meaning that has been intended by the user of that word, through understanding the context, both in terms of syntax and of broader sense.

The fragmentation of understanding in contemporary society, which can only ever see the whole as a mere accumulation of parts and never the parts as mere aspects of the whole, means that context becomes increasingly inaccessible, like the metaphorical wood hidden by the trees.

People, particularly those over-attached to rather narrow and dogmatic positions, tend to grasp hold of one meaning of a word and then desperately cling on to it, refusing to accept any other possible meaning, like a dog with its teeth fiercely clenched on to some stupid piece of wood it has picked up.

An “egalitarian” society can mean a fair one, in which everybody has the equal opportunity to fully participate and flourish, regardless of their background.

But it can also be a society where the term is used to justify central state control, to thwart individual initiative, to treat human beings as identical units and to hammer out all traits that distinguish them from one another.

It’s not that one term is right and the other wrong, but that we need to listen to how exactly it is being used, by whom, in conjunction with what other terms and for what ends.

This is not usually too difficult. If it is deployed by the Chinese Communist Party, for instance, or by the likes of the WEF (although such circles tend to talk rather about “equity” and “equitable”, presumably because they have a sly financial sense in mind), we will understand, from the context, that they mean the state-enforced, standardising, kind of egalitarianism.

If, however, the term is used by freedom-loving people who oppose centralised power wielded by the state or dominant interests, then we will interpret it in its liberatory meaning.

There are, however, people of a particular political background who will always interpret “egalitarian” in the negative sense, choosing to wilfully ignore context in the interests of clinging on to their well-chewed ideological stick. They thus impede the evolution of discussion and thought beyond the level of binary division at which they have become stuck.

With regard to the term “noble”, I am very aware of the sense in which it applies to the old ruling class, those with inherited wealth and power who regarded, and no doubt still do regard, themselves as entirely superior to the serfs and plebs whose labour they exploit in order to maintain their lives of luxury and plenty. That’s why I don’t generally use the term!

I am also, of course, very aware of the positive sense of the word, as applying to thoughts, actions or people motivated by a sense of justice and value beyond self-interest, a “higher” kind of being.

There are, however, people of a particular political background who will always interpret “noble” in the negative sense, choosing to wilfully ignore context in the interests of clinging on to their well-chewed ideological stick. They also thus impede the evolution of discussion and thought beyond the level of binary division at which they have become stuck!

It is these entrenched context-free mindsets that see contradictions where there are none. In fact, I would say that a truly noble outlook would undoubtedly embrace the fairness implied by positive egalitarianism!

This question has led us back into territory we were exploring earlier on, concerning hierarchy. I suspect that, regardless of what has been said so far, there might remain some doubts in your mind about the fundamental compatibility between anarchism and Traditionalism. If this is the case, maybe you would like to set them out so that we can discuss them?

James: I’d like to push a little further into something you just said first. I see what you mean about the term ‘nobility.’ I suppose the sense in which it refers to the titled nobility might be the primary association for many Europeans. In the States we’ve never had a titled nobility. Our Rockefellers and Carnegies, and now our Gates and Musks, were never thought of as nobility (at least not by the rest of us anyway). Their power has consistently been recognized and they may be broadly admired for their financial successes, but we pretty much know they are plutocrats. So, I think the broader meaning of ‘nobility’ is probably what would come first to most Americans’ minds.

But I’m not really concerned with the word really, just the reality. I pushed in that direction in my last comment because I had one of my pet ideas in mind. I think there are no cultural institutions that are really calling young people to, let’s say, ‘heroic’ endeavor, but I suspect that if such a call were made, a lot of them would respond positively.

The institutions that should convey that message, the schools and the churches in particular, by and large are not. Increasingly those institutions adopt at best a therapeutic stance, or are so milquetoast that they don’t succeed in inspiring anyone. Even the military is proving incapable of this. Sports is about the only place left in the lives of many of the young where someone really expects some sort of excellence of them. Hence, I suspect if a movement or a philosophy called for heroic venture, it would speak to a lot of people and fill a cultural and existential vacuum.

But to your question about Traditionalism and Anarchism. I think the issue turns on your assessment of the human potential for spiritual enlightenment. Above you talked about a broad cultural movement that would bring this sort of metaphysical awareness and open up a channel for massive political revolt. I think an anarchist has to be pretty optimistic about the capacities of all human beings, so it makes sense to me that you might approach Traditionalism from anarchism. I agree with you: all anarchists should be Traditionalists!

From the Traditionalist side, I think things look differently. Most of the Traditionalists seem to hold the view that only a relatively small percent of people will develop genuine spiritual vision. Hence their distinction between esoteric religion being for this group and exoteric religion being for the majority.

Most of them seem to, under most circumstances, support the idea of a spiritual hierarchy with relatively few enlightened ones on the top. They then translate that into a political hierarchy whereby that spiritual elite can provide the vision for the society as a whole. For the many not so enlightened it is beneficial to be incorporated into this sacramental hierarchy. So, I could see most Traditionalists not becoming anarchists, but some have.

If this is more or less what many Traditionalists believe, I think they have made a mistake about the religious traditions they value. Many of the major world religions, and I think Christianity preeminently (which is seldom held up by the Traditionalists as the normative model), contain the notion that spiritual realities upset worldly hierarchies.

Jesus was quite explicit that no kingdoms in this world are the Kingdom of God and that that Kingdom turns our this-worldly values on their heads. The beatitudes and virtually every parable he teaches transmit this message and work a transvaluation of the values of the rich and powerful. The Traditionalists do a great service in helping us recover a primordial and solid metaphysics. I think they are weaker in their derivation of the ethical implications of that vision.

As far as anarchism goes, it’s the anarchism you point to that has a strong spiritual component and a worked-out metaphysics of natural order that interests me. I’m still trying to come to grips with the classic anarchist theorists. I’m onboard with the critique of political hierarchies that enable the exploitation of people. I’m also increasingly onboard with the ‘freedom-loving people’ aspect. I’m pretty much all-in on the critique of the modern state.

I think I’m still finding anarchism as necessarily overly optimistic about the prospects of living well with no authority though. My sympathies are there. I think people, especially ‘ordinary’ people, incline towards goodness and that good social structures would reinforce this but that our social structures do the opposite.

I’m probably opening up a can of worms here. I believe in sin, and I don’t think most anarchists do, and maybe can’t. I’m not talking about any moralizing, nit picking, conception of sin. I mean ‘original sin’. Augustine boiled that down to ‘love of the self’ over reality (let’s say the Good, the True, and the Beautiful — he says God; same thing more or less in my view).

And he also offered a critique of political exploitation by saying that sin leads into the libido dominandi, the desire to dominate others which is the driving force behind empires and all that.

To an extent you seem to have referred to this, in a way at least, when you talked earlier about our need to overcome our egoism and evil political structures. Anyway, I think that malady goes pretty deep in our being and most likely can’t be universally overcome. I think an adequate politics needs to account for that. I suppose I’m with Chesterton on that: he said it was the only Christian dogma that there was actually empirical proof of.

Put from another angle, there is a reason we need wisdom and spirituality and all that. We don’t just innately have them because we got issues.

Am I misunderstanding anarchism? Or am I just beyond the anarchist pale in being skeptical about the perfectibility of the species?

Cudenec: As far as I can see, the Judeo-Christian idea of original sin doesn’t actually refer to our innate condition – it was something bad that happened to us in the Garden of Eden, from which point on we were in need of redemption, right?

That is not so far from what I was saying about the way that the dominant ego came to block us from having awareness of our belonging to the Whole. Because I equate nature and the living – the unfolding of the Whole on the terrestrial plane – with good, I regard humanity’s innate condition as one that is naturally good.

I would locate the source of the wrong path we have taken as something other than the innate human essence, something like a disease that has corrupted it. Because we are trapped in a state of ego-centred non-understanding, because we’ve got “issues”, as you say, we do now need to be directed to a path of spiritual wisdom in order to get out of that degraded state.

Initially, this improvement, this “progress” in the real sense of the word, would just amount to shaking off the disease that has been afflicting us, in order to regain our natural, good, condition. But that’s not the end of the story, because I think that part of humankind’s innate condition is that we have a potential for spiritual growth that could take us to barely imaginable heights.

This innate potential is currently being completely blocked from emerging because of the stunted state in which we have become stuck. But the political-spiritual revolt against that condition could clear away the blockage by taking us back to our innate condition of potential excellence, and then allow us to take the path we were always meant to take towards much greater things.

Evolution would be back on the right path. A society built on the denial of ego, the understanding of larger belonging, on the love of beauty, truth, nature and freedom would have as its deepest purpose the real organic improvement of our species.

The holy grail of this society would, I suppose, be some sort of idealised eventual perfection, even though that will always remain impossible on the physical plane.

But obviously it would look nothing like the false “perfection” envisaged by eugenicists and industrial transhumanists. It would not involve the denial and destruction of nature, but the flowering of humanity as a harmonious part of the gloriously unfolding living universe.

To pick up on other points you made, I think that Traditionalists are indeed sometimes missing the insight that venerating institutions and dogmas that have been shaped by, and are deeply entwined with, the dominant system is never going to lead us out of the modern prison to which they are avowedly opposed.

What they can learn from anarchists is that a definite rupture is needed, the destruction of the many layers of repression and domination that prevent us from knowing the empowerment of deepest belonging.

And yes, this coming insurrection will inevitably require mighty levels of courage, idealism and willingness for individual self-sacrifice. I agree that a call for heroic endeavour in this battle is badly needed and is perhaps the only way to unleash the levels of righteous resistance needed to break through to the future that should be ours.

James: I’m really glad I opened that can of worms! We might use different terminology, but I think we are actually (surprisingly) largely in agreement. We’ve got the Garden of Eden, the Holy Grail, and “political-spiritual revolt” all packed in there. How can this be any better?

The future you are envisioning is of course itself a spiritual vision. I suppose a version of millenarianism. I’ve got nothing against that. I suppose our current situation doesn’t feel much like the eve of the Millennium though. It feels more like an ending than a beginning (though the possibility of the beginning of an even worse version of what we already have is not off the table– at least lots of very powerful people are working towards that). But perhaps all endings are actually beginnings: new things become possible when old things pass away.

In the biggest sense possible, where do you think we are as a civilization right now?

Cudenec: I have had the feeling since I was about 14 years old that this civilization, if we can really call it that, was heading rapidly downhill. Apart from the odd moment when the system (wrongly) appeared to be on the point of welcome collapse, I’ve had no reason to revise that opinion!

I don’t know whether we are now fairly close to an end, or whether that end will only come after an even worse period. In either case I think that our awareness of the nature of this Leviathan, and the philosophy that can be forged from a deep opposition to it, can be the seed for the new beginning which lies ahead.

It’s for that reason that I am disappointed in those who quite correctly target one aspect of the sickness afflicting our societies but, perhaps through fear of losing short-term credibility or support, shy away from condemning the whole thing.

Not only will this half-baked compromise delay the disappearance of this system, merely encouraging it to adapt parts of its agenda to avoid such criticism, but it also ducks the historical responsibility of providing future generations with a clear picture of what went wrong, why it went wrong and how humankind can avoid ever falling into the same stupid trap again.

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Article courtesy of Paul Cudenac.

Author: Paul Cudenac

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