“Traditionalism” through the Lens of Cultural Ecology
February 27, 2017
A battle is raging in Washington for ultimate power, and while it’s being defined by personality (specifically, one “yuge” ego), it also hinges on political philosophies. The common terms liberalism and conservatism have lost their usefulness in navigating these boiling political waters. Traditionalism is a word that has been used to emblemize the recent rightward ideological surge in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, but it remains widely unfamiliar and poorly defined.
In this essay, I’ll explore the significance of traditionalism using a conceptual tool I’ve sometimes called cultural ecology. Ecology is, of course, the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments; cultural ecology is therefore an inquiry into the ways that society shapes itself in response to geography, energy resources, and other factors of the environment. In my view, the current rise of traditionalism can best be understood in light of these kinds of contextual factors. I’ll discuss cultural ecology and our current global context first, traditionalism a little later on.
Cultural Ecology and the Current Global Context
My own understanding of cultural ecology is derived largely from the work of anthropologist Marvin Harris, who investigated in detail how societies were transformed by their shifts from primordial hunting-and-gathering to agrarianism, and how they adapted themselves to various geographies (anthropologist Leslie White and geographer Jared Diamond also made important contributions along these lines). In the last couple of centuries, a shift as profound as the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago occurred as societies came to base their economies on the use of fossil fuels. Now, as the fossil fuel era starts to wane, wrenching changes in the social, intellectual, political, and religious foundations of modern society should be anticipated.
Fossil-fueled society came to full flower during the twentieth century. With unprecedented amounts of energy available economies grew rapidly, and the expectation of further and unending growth became a core feature of economic and political theory. Consumerism evolved as a set of economic arrangements to ensure and manage growth. With growth came the notion that unending progress was to be expected also in the social, scientific, and political realms. Capitalism—the private ownership of what Karl Marx called the “means of production,” along with mechanisms for constant reinvestment in the expansion of those means—was never so much a coherent ideology as a set of cobbled-together agreements and institutions. Since capitalism’s tendency (as Marx observed) was to produce ever greater economic inequality along with worsening boom-bust cycles, efforts were made to restrain those tendencies through redistributive taxation and social programs, along with financial, labor, and environmental regulations (which were seen by many as signs of social and political progress). Immigration and globalization served to reduce labor costs, but were also regarded as evidence of progress toward a more egalitarian, multicultural ideal. The acceptance and resettlement of refugees from political strife or natural disasters represented a national expression of humanitarianism.
This was the milieu within which liberal and conservative political discourse took place; that discourse questioned relative degrees of power and benefit enjoyed by social groups (e.g., workers versus managers versus owners of capital) but seldom challenged the shared allegiance to growth. Within a growing economy, there was always more for (nearly) everyone, even though some were able to obtain a much higher percentage of the increasing overall wealth.
The fossil fuel era is now failing. Unless society migrates rapidly away from carbon-based fuels, climate change will increasingly batter the economy in a hundred different ways. But even ignoring climate change, there is still the problem of depletion: oil, coal, and natural gas are finite resources extracted using the low-hanging fruit principle. While large amounts of these resources remain, each further increment extracted offers declining energy returns on the energy invested in producing them. Economists should recognize this as an instance of the law of diminishing returns. The situation with respect to oil is approaching crisis: while production rates are high, costs to producers overall are soaring (the recent drop in production costs for certain types of U.S. tight oil notwithstanding), and the higher prices needed to cover those costs can’t be sustained because they tend to frustrate economic growth and kill demand for motor fuel. The petroleum industry is between a proverbial rock and hard place, with debt increasing and profit evaporating. Alternative energy sources will need to be introduced at eight to ten times the current rate of solar and wind build-out to avert either a climate or a depletion crisis. In any case it is highly doubtful that renewable or nuclear energy could support the consumer economy we have come to rely on. Since energy is the basis for all economic activity (a fact mainstream economists have been slow to grasp), the end of the fossil fuel era effectively means the end of growth.
Just as a growing economy encouraged the development of the ideological and social constructs of the twentieth century (described above), a stagnating or contracting economy is likely to favor a very different and uglier politics whose main themes are:
- longing (and promises) for the return of a lost condition of abundance
- expressions of grievance
- blaming of identifiable social or political groups for the loss of abundance, and
- calls for the exclusion of others who are deemed to be competing with “us” for increasingly scarce resources.
This could be a description of what would, in ordinary political discourse, be termed far-right nationalist populism. Traditionalism serves as one of several standards for that strain of politics.
Inside Bannon’s Brain
Let’s look a little more closely at the ideological particulars of traditionalism. It would probably be futile to search the words of Donald Trump himself for signs of a coherent philosophy, because the man does not write books or articles (only tweets), and speaks below a sixth-grade level. However, some meaningful insight into ideological Trumpism can perhaps be gleaned from White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
The website Politico recently explored Bannon’s reading list, describing him as a “voracious reader who devours works of history and political theory.” His favored readings “tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone. . . .”
One of Bannon’s influences is said to be neoreactionary blogger Curtis Yarvin, who writes under the pen name Mencius Moldbug. Yarvin is a leader of a movement called Dark Enlightenment, that rejects egalitarianism and multiculturalism along with the progressive view of world history. Dark Enlightenment implies a support for strong, centralized political leadership along with libertarian economics and socially conservative views on gender roles, race relations, and immigration.
Another Bannon favorite is Nassim Taleb, author of the 2014 book Antifragile, which proposes managing systems in a way that benefits from random events, errors, and volatility.
The term traditionalism crops up specifically in the work of Italian philosopher Julius Evola (1898-1974). In a recent New York Times article, Jason Horowitz explored Bannon’s fascination with Evola, “a leading proponent of Traditionalism, a worldview popular in far-right and alternative religious circles that believes progress and equality are poisonous illusions.” Evola’s book Revolt Against the Modern World speculated that the near-universal myth of a lost Golden Age was actually a collective memory of a time when religious and temporal power were united, and society was ruled by spiritual warriors. He believed that the modern world represents a serious decline from that society.
In my first book, Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (1989, revised edition 1995), I explained how the idea of a lost Golden Age has long been associated with various forms of millenarianism—the notion that the current world is degraded and approaching a cleansing crisis from which a revived paradisiacal condition will emerge. Millenarian movements (of which many variants of Christianity and Islam are clear examples) often spring up during times of secular decline or crisis, and typically take the form of a cult led by a charismatic visionary aiming to “Make the world great again!” The leader is sometimes a benign character (like British socialist Robert Owen, who started an American commune in 1825), though often more malign (like Hitler).
In my view, if there ever was a Golden Age, it was probably not a time of rigid hierarchy; the myth is more likely a deep cultural memory of our shared origin in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, when we lived embedded in nature rather than separate from and dominating it. Hunting and gathering was a hard way of life, but psychologically rewarding nevertheless. Evidence suggests humans left it behind not out of a hunger for technology and progress, but because of population pressure and resource depletion. Evola’s avowed fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-feminism, and his vision of a hierarchical society ruled by a spiritually superior caste are, in my view, based on a profoundly delusional understanding of history and anthropology. But in this respect traditionalism is far from unique: most millenarian movements invent highly fanciful idyllic pasts and possible futures.
In any case, the longing for a cleansing fire is clearly present in Evola. Perhaps Bannon—who has said he wants to “destroy” the state—is especially attracted to Evola’s belief that creating change is “not a question of contesting and polemicizing, but of blowing everything up.”
In short, cultural ecology predicts that a historical moment of change such as ours would provide the ideal growth medium for social and religious movements that glorify a largely imagined past, anticipate a cathartic renewal (which they may seek to precipitate), and promise followers a privileged position in the coming order. And that’s pretty much what we are seeing.
Traditionalism Beyond Trumpland
Not surprisingly, perhaps, some of the basic features of traditionalism are also evident in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Recall that Russia went through its own end-of-growth crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR. It’s entirely understandable, therefore, that the current Russian leader has gained great popularity by calling for a return to idealized ancient values. In a 2013 speech at the Valdai conference in Russia, Putin warned,
“We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”
In a 2014 speech at the Vatican, Steve Bannon called Putin a kleptocrat, but spoke approvingly of his philosophy: “We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what [Putin is] talking about as far as traditionalism goes—particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.”
One of Putin’s influences (though the extent is disputed) is Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right Russian political philosopher, who has himself professed admiration for Julius Evola. Dugin writes prolifically on geopolitics as well as political philosophy, and has asserted that, “Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, we can become a credible global player.” He has helped Putin forge alliances with nationalist movements in Europe, including Marine LePen’s National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Ataka Party in Bulgaria, and Hungary’s Jobbik Party. Putin’s friend Viktor Orbán, now Prime Minister of Hungary, has promised to turn his country into an “illiberal democracy” modeled on Russia. After a February 2 meeting with Putin, Orbán declared that “It’s in the air; the world is in the process of a substantial realignment.” Orbán is virulently anti-Muslim; he sees Islam as a “rulebook for another world.”
Traditionalism demands an enemy, and the fear and loathing of Islam is a key feature of far-right populism in both Europe and the U.S. Here’s Steve Bannon speaking (again at the Vatican) on the dangers of what he calls “jihadist Islamic fascism”: “I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. . . . There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. . . . Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.”
Geert Wilders of the Dutch populist Party for Freedom is the current frontrunner in Holland’s upcoming elections; he has proclaimed that “Islam and freedom are not compatible” and argues for strong anti-Muslim measures, without which the nation will be “colonised and Islamised.”
The expectation of an ultimate cathartic clash between a traditionalist Christian West and jihadist Islam is of course enthusiastically shared by the most radical Islamist movements such as the Islamic State and Al Qaida—which themselves represent yet more brands of millenarianism.
The description of the relationship between Islam and the West as a “clash between civilizations” appeared first in a 1957 speech at Johns Hopkins University by British orientalist Bernard Lewis (he later amended the phrase to “clash of civilizations”). Harvard professor Samuel Huntington popularized the idea, which now makes its way toward center stage in world politics. With both Trumpists and Jihadis as advocates, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Societies in decline or crisis don’t always elevate far-right leaders and social movements. For example, the medieval Joachimites and Brethren of the Free Spirit (whose followers endured plagues and wrenching poverty), and the 17th century Ranters in Britain (where small farmers were losing their land to the wealthy) promoted a radically egalitarian vision of human relations. Much more recently, a period of economic contraction and crisis in the United States produced one of the country’s most left-leaning presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, it could be argued that Barack Obama was an FDR-like figure tasked to address the global financial crisis of 2008, but that his too-tepid response (or the fact that the crisis was too deeply-rooted to yield fully to Keynesian formulae) then opened the way for far-right Trumpism.
Traditionalism therefore may characterize only one phase of the cultural and political aftermath to the end of growth. While for the foreseeable future (and in certain nations or regions) circumstances may favor strong leaders who demonize racial or religious groups and promise a restoration of forsaken values, their regimes may disappear as quickly as they arrived on the scene. Polities may fragment, with formerly united regions choosing to follow separate paths. In a time of such ferment, most socio-political forecasts are foolhardy. However, I’ll venture one: the least likely outcome for America is a return to the liberal, secular, consumerist order that characterized the post-WWII decades.
Currently, large swathes of America (accounting for over half its total population) are proving highly resistant to the Trumpist mental virus, and much the same could be said with regard to most of the European far-right movements. Further, the likely practical administrative failure of the Trump regime might immunize the nation—or at least large chunks of it—from any other rightist millenarian leader or movement for the foreseeable future.
A far-left millenarian movement could arise in response, given a sufficiently charismatic standard-bearer. In the decades since 1980 the West has gotten used to recurrent crops of fairly ineffectual and innocuous movements on the political left, but a more militant egalitarianism is entirely feasible (think Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, or the Red Brigades) and could potentially prove as dangerous as any other brand of extreme millenarianism.
Fortunately, our future options need not be limited to choosing between competing brands of millenarianism. Individuals and communities can simply concentrate on practical efforts to bring the greatest good to the most people (and other species) over the longest time by rethinking and redesigning production and consumption patterns in anticipation of the failure of existing consumerist institutions. The word “good” in the previous sentence is of course open to definition and redefinition, but even a meager understanding of ecology and psychology would suggest that it should point to values like diversity (permitting the flourishing of many kinds of species and cultures), happiness, health, autonomy, and sustainability. Identify existing efforts pushing your community in those directions. Start new efforts along those lines, and work to build the resilience of your community to economic and social disruption. Millenarianism is a collective psychological expression of stress and powerlessness. The antidote is to act. In a time of division, unite. In a time of demonization, reach out.
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