Occult Features of Anarchism, by Erica Laglisse

  • Posted on: 28 July 2019
  • By: thecollective

From USAPP– American Politics and Policy, book review

In Occult Features of Anarchism, with Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the PeoplesErica Laglisse challenges the assumption that rationality and secularism are at the centre of anarchism, instead showing how this is rooted in a disavowal of its roots in religious and occult thinking, with implications for how we view anarchism and conspiracy theories today. This is a rich work that confronts deep-seated contemporary questions about anarchism, conspiracy theories and the nature of knowledge, writes Bethan Johnson

If you are interested in Occult Features of Anarchism, you may like to listen to the podcast of an LSE event in which Erica Lagalisse discusses her book, recorded at LSE on 20 March 2019. 

Occult Features of Anarchism, with Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples. Erica Laglisse. PM Press. 2019.

We live in an age of conspiracy theories. In the last decade, millions of messages on social media, interviews on YouTube or on podcasts and references in political speeches tell tales of QAnon and the American ‘deep state’, of the British royal family as shape-shifting lizards and of how terrorist attacks are the work of governments or faked. Add to these the influential anti-vaccination movement and climate change denial, and it is hard to deny that we live in a moment when many wonder if their lives and futures are in the hands of a small yet nefarious cabal of people. We also live in a time when anarchists are more visible than they have been in many years due to their roles in the Occupy Wall Street movement and Antifa. Thus, in a timely fashion, Erica Lagalisse’s book, Occult Features of Anarchism, with Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples, seeks to marry these new and contemporaneous developments in our (political) lives, connecting them in ways we perhaps had never considered.

Written more as a treatise in two parts than a book, anthropologist Lagalisse attempts to study concepts of anarchism and the occult in a part historical, part anthropological and part autobiographical/ethnographical work. In establishing a foundation for her research, Lagalisse first effectively demonstrates, partly through anecdotal evidence as well as through more traditional academic lines, how modern anarchists have come to value ideas of rationality, secularity and a particular kind of empiricism, which has alienated those whose activism is constructed along alternative lines, with particularly patronising attitudes towards, and through the silencing of, women of colour and Indigenous women.

Lagalisse then begins a series of chapters reminiscent of an intellectual and book history, tracing the dissemination and reception of particular books. She tracks how the perceived valuing of secular, rational and empirical modes of thinking contravene reality. First, Lagalisse tackles the topic of secularisation and its relationship to anarchism as a function of historic ideas about the role of the state in people’s lives. She presents arguments for the notion that the dichotomy of the ‘individual’ and ‘society’ that undergirds politics is infused with cosmology. ‘The transcendent God of theological dualism’, she writes, ‘can be found just beneath the surface of every argument for centralized authority, including most canonical social theory (which anarchists, we may note, tend to recognize as “authoritarian”)’ (17). Thus, despite the protestations of secular ideology as part of anarchism, she contends that ‘modern anarchism has never been purely atheist except in name’ (18).

In subsequent chapters, Lagalisse works to demonstrate how various forms of knowledge now valued as secular remain infused with religious and notably occult thinking. She traces much of modern science and mathematics through the ideas of Corpus Hermeticum, a mystical document about the integration of all concepts into one entity and the human as the microcosm of the universe itself. She shows the influence of these documents on specific influential Enlightenment and Renaissance individuals who are now identified as men of science, rather than of mysticism: these figures include Réné Descartes, Johannes Kepler and Nicolaus Copernicus. To this point, Lagalisse writes: ‘In retrospect, the European historian has enjoyed categorizing certain forms of worldly operation as “magical” and others as “scientific,” yet the distinction is anachronistic’ (29). Lagalisse goes on to connect these ideas to the rise of various associations now affiliated with some of the most famous conspiracy theories in the Western world: namely, the Freemasons and the Illuminati. She charts how specific men helped to found these societies, and how others expanded their reach.

Amidst all this, Lagalisse deftly defends herself against the charge of having fallen into the conspiracy theory trope herself, clearly noting when the connections she seeks to draw between thinkers or ideas are more speculative or tenuous as regards evidence. She meanwhile does not devalue all of anarchism simply because it has forgotten some of its history. ‘The fact that Marx builds on Hegel who builds on the Hermetica does not necessarily mean they are wrong,’ she writes. ‘It simply means that a vast amount of “rational” social theory relies on archetypes and geometrics of thought stemming from a specific, historiographically situated cosmology—as does the notion of “rationality” itself’ (70). Thus, Lagalisse argues, the use of rationality or secularity to claim a kind of superiority within anarchist circles should be taken as a castle built upon sand.

Contrasting this charted history of ties between the rational and the occult, in the final section Lagalisse transitions into perceptions surrounding belief in modern conspiracy theories. In doing so, she demonstrates how the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has been used as a rhetorical cudgel with which to beat back and delegitimise. She claims that while conspiracy theorists are associated with the image of the solitary white man living in his parents’ basement or with a bigoted Donald Trump voter in 2016, these images are stereotypes. They also betray certain value judgements of the kinds of people who believe conspiracy theories, an epithet that is often associated with working-class people whereas wealthier people of the same opinion avoid such judgement.

In its pursuit to hold a mirror up to anarchism and those who consider conspiracy theories to be the stuff that only uneducated, bigoted people could believe, Occult Features of Anarchism is quite effective. In one of the best interventions of the book, Lagalisse proves especially incisive in her analysis of the elitist and gendered nature of ‘truth-telling’ and ‘magic’. One discussion of particular note is that of how, during the period when magic was being converted into science and mathematics, women were contemporaneously persecuted in ‘witch trials’:

After all, as “magic” itself was gaining respect in certain elite quarters, women were being persecuted as witches precisely for practising “magic,” wherein we may observe that the perceived danger was not “magic” itself but the gender of its practitioner (30).

This discussion illuminates how elite, educated men (not the male peasants who are often blamed) led the hunting of women who had acquired a great deal of knowledge about the human body, and that this was therefore a gendered and classed persecution.

Lagalisse also levels well-articulated criticisms of anarchism itself for not being as inclusive as is often presented. She writes that:

As any anarchist around can see, fluency in a particular vocabulary, knowing the names of certain historical figures, and being vouched for by someone “in the know” is all requirement for entry into the anarchist club, as is a commitment to a specific ideological constellation informed by the history of its practice (81).

Convincing in many areas, Occult Features of Anarchism would nonetheless have benefited from being slightly less like a treatise. Lagalisse discusses her vision for the text as having utility for academics to consider how they study topics such as anarchism, the occult and conspiracy theories, and for those engaged in political activism (108). For academics, though, more work could have been done to flesh out the explicit connection between the earlier sections on anarchism and its links to the occult and the later sections on modern conspiracy theories, as well as simply more engagement with the book history element of the earlier chapters.

While Lagalisse does stimulate reflection upon who is classified as a conspiracy theorist and who gets to do this classifying, I also left the work not entirely convinced by her flattening of the definition of conspiracy theory and arguments about how conspiracy theorists are viewed by the rest of the society. Do I really think of people who talk about ‘Jewish lizard bankers’ (95) in such simple terms as ‘conspiracy theorist’? Are people sceptical of vaccines really being treated with the same degree of contempt as those who think that 9/11 was government-sanctioned?

Meanwhile, in her introduction, Lagalisse makes reference to the idea of enticing people away from conspiracy theories and other beliefs: ‘Of course, reasoned debate will not be sufficient to turn devoted neo-Nazis away from their project, but it may affect the future actions of those still sitting on the fence so to speak’ (11). The question then becomes of whose duty it is to convince people not to believe conspiracy theories. Often, this responsibility falls on the communities already victimised by a conspiracy theory. Given Lagalisse’s take on the difficulty many oppressed groups have being respected within anarchist circles, how does she reconcile this additional burden on their time? While this question does not have a simple answer, some discussion of it felt warranted.

Occult Features of Anarchism is a rich work that forces readers to confront questions about the nature of anarchism, conspiracy theories and knowledge. In many ways, it leaves us needing to do more than simply consider the arguments on the page. Perhaps this is particularly salient in this age of ‘alternative facts’ and conspiracy theories, and we are better for taking a little longer to consider what we consume.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Bethan Johnson – University of Cambridge

Bethan Johnson is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research explores the rise of militant separatist groups in Western Europe and North America in the mid-Cold War-era. The work explores the life-cycle of violent ethno-nationalism, driving forces behind radicalisation along separatist lines and authoritative methods for ending and avoiding deadly conflicts. Her master’s dissertation, also undertaken at the University of Cambridge, studied the manipulation of cultural nationalism for political unionist purposes by Lady Llanover in nineteenth-century Wales.

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Not sure if this reviewer is aware but Erica is candid about the fact that this book is a small piece of a larger thesis that isn't done yet, published as is for fundraising purposes. Maybe that explains some of the thin parts?

i found this book somewhat interesting, but the author has a bunch of strange characterizations of contemporary anarchists. at one point i said -- out loud -- "that's bullshit; i don't know any anarchists like that!" but of course she's discussing an academic/activist milieu on the east coast of north america, where the leftist/academic/activist strands stand mighty and proud. ultimately the book is just unsatisfying, a promise unfulfilled. i couldn't quite put my finger on why it bothered me in so many places... but i think i know at least part of the problem, which is her own background. her trajectory is yet another example of how the academy totally fucks up what might have started out as an authentically radical personal project and turned it into a whole bunch of bullshit...

Out of curiosity, how much does she discuss Crowley/Thelema, if at all?

no mention, and why would she? there's nothing anarchist about Crowley or the Thelema wankers.

I don't deny they are wankers but their cult has nrkst tones. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." "Love is the law, love under will."

"tones"? like the misogyny? like there's still Law. like the inverted hierarchical religiosity? like Crowley working with MI6? yeah, "tones." smh...

"In Occult Features of Anarchism, with Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples, Erica Laglisse challenges the assumption that rationality and secularism are at the centre of anarchism, instead showing how this is rooted in a disavowal of its roots in religious and occult thinking, with implications for how we view anarchism and conspiracy theories today."

Despite your personal feelings and disparaging remarks, I am comfortable with my question. Thank you for answering it.

It's been a while since I read it, but there isn't any Thelema in the notes I took. Mostly the book focuses on earlier periods. I feel like anyone who is interested in serious scholarship on the occult (Frances Yates, Joscelyn Godwin, etc.) and is an anarchist needs to read this book.
To me Thelema is very relevant to contemporary anarchism, at least as it intersects with the occult. Certainly prominent mystical/occult anarchist groups like the Moorish Orthodox Church are influenced by Thelema. The MOC and the OTO share members to a significant extent.

for the information and sharing how there is intersection. I've put it on my reading list.

the author is a milquetoast lefty liberal from what i heard in the LSE conference audio

she's a hell of a lot more interesting than you ;)

well yeah! but that’s a super low bar! XD

is all one needs to start to see "the religious in the 'secular' ", the lady who wrote the above mentioned book seems to be appealing to academia, she seems to fallow strings of ideas to show connections between ideologies to show that anarchists "are occult", but ideologies are only autonomous in the sense that human speakers perpetuate them.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote the forward so 'nuff said about political perspective. Does it matter? Possibly. Probably not, dust on the fringe and all.

If you lean neither left or right but fully neither, none of the above, and fuck off - there is probably something informative, useful, or maybe ridiculously hilarious in the occasional peruse of the mainstream's take on anarch*. Especially if you lean in a strategist fancy ...

Sending appreciation out for pointing out this one out. Looking for a free copy.

the "mainstream" cares about anarchs? pics or it didn't happen

what a roundabout way to ask for nudes, sot

ya got me … who doesn't want to see neckbeards nekkid?!

There is all sorts of great material in this book about early anarchism, like Plotino Rhodakanaty who founded a school in Mexico in the 1860s, the Escuela del Rayo y del Socialism, which is translated as the school of Socialism and Lightning / the Ray [of light]. School of Socialism, not thank you. School of Socialism and Lightning, you might be on to something. At the same time he was writing pamphlets in Spanish about Neoplatinism.
I guess this kind of info is not everybodies' anarchism, but if it is yours, you need to read this book. There are about 50 examples like the above!

You obviously know nothing, NOTHING, about the human psyche's impressionable condition when it is told lies about the " Unknowable " and tricked into believing that certain ppl have control over these inexplicable mysteries. Also the susceptibility for the senses to be deceived by hallucinations when under stress or fear which are then manipulated and explained as spiritual manifestations and phantoms of external powers. Continue deluding yourselves, you are no different to those who solemly bleat, GOD BLESS AMERICA!!

Here how the so-called logic works:
A: occult speculations go against mainstream religious inquiries
B: anarchist ideas go against mainstream politics
Ergo: occult speculations are part of anarchism

Good luck turning lead into gold. I’ll stick with actual logic. I highly recommend it.

It's mostly a book about history. Laglisse gives concrete examples of the intersection of anarchism and the occult. Bakunin (for instance) was a practicing occultist and participated in various sorts of secret societies. This isn't even controversial. There are many similar examples in the book. The book doesn't address the efficacy of magical practices.
Also, several of the people who articulated logic as a philosophical system were literally alchemists. So was Newton, and a bunch of the Royal Society. It's not just anarchists who were (and are) occultists. Scientists, politicians, Catholic priests, protestant theologians, etc.

Exactly! That stuff about how like, anti-monarchist hippy wu cults are arguably the european prototype models for more contemporary revolutionary organizations blew my mind! Hard to prove but fascinating stuff.

OMG God bless Viagrismo!

Everything is always boners to you... Or the lack thereof? ;)

Luvin' your virile reaction to my tempting prods ;)

Logic is oppressive and also the product of 2000 years of White cis male Christian Euro settler domination n stuff. Like controlled fire, you know. Believe that or else.

Old samurai saying ---> Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about phantoms and spooks while one is peeling an orange. Zen spirituality is just to peel the orange.

funny, didn't know that crowley worked with m16.
But what I do know and what anarchists should know about the OTO is the following:
One of it's founders was a police spy among anarchists in the 1880ies. THEODOR REUSS. He was involved in the tracking down of the anarchist Johann Neve, which brought enormous damage and conflicts to the anarchist movement.
Later, in the 20thiest Century, Reuss was hanging around in Monte Verita in switzerland, as not only Crowley did too, but also many anarchists. They didn't seem to know, that one of this confused occultists was the (ex?) police spy from years ago.
Reuss was the one that made Crowley big!
Now: when this is the missing link to anarchism with crowley, it is anarchism through the lense of a police spy!

Ah, and Rudolf Steiner, that had a lot of success, better said: has. At least in Germany there's hundreds of schools with his concept. The founder of Antroposophy was also affiliated with Reuss, and - WAS an anarchist before he became the leader of a cult.

Please keep sharing. Exciting that there are others here also interested and curious about what boats anarchism has passed in the night of history.

having studied Steinerism, the education system he created for children has many aspects that I think would be welcomed in the education of children of an anarchist society; fee opportunity to grow through play, art, music and dance and to branch out into whatever field of study they wanted...minus the "over intellectualized" theology (as interesting as it is).

I recently started listening to a podcast by an anarchist anthroposophist that's frustrating but edifying, in varying proportions depending on the episode. Your mileage may vary. The Left vs. Witches would probably be of interest to anarchists who are into the occult.

Sure you're not confusing this guy with Stirner? He became the leader of a cult on @news!

As I said, Rudolf Steiner WAS an anarchist in his early days... He also was in contact with the individualist proprietarian anarchist John Henry Mackay in which letter-exchange he calls himself explicitely an anarchist. But he stopped being one, and his later teachings are authoritarian...
He overtook a sect and became its leader, not really anarchist...
Later he deleted whole parts of his works that were taken in the selected works which had more anarchist inclinations.
PS: i'm not really interested in the occult as such, it's just that there is this link to anarchism...

Was doing a study of anarchists for TEN YEARS!!! and aparently only read Kropotkin and Bakunin, because those two are basically the only anarchists mentioned, and then she basis most of the book off of them. Utter bullshit

Than she compares their 19th century ideas to modern science and didnt bother to read any modern anarchist thought on evolution and symbiosis. She blatantly used it to create a false critique.

She somehow ran into some random douches who call themselves "anarchists" and promote the super vague NWO theories (which are cool and all) and told her to check of the anti Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Utter nonsense! Has she ever met serious anarchists with brains? or is she just using anarchists to get a thesis done.

The book is generally interesting but she doesnt know shit about anarchists.

Look at her bottom of page citations and refferences of who are anarchists, Bakunin Kropotkin, Kropotkin Bakunin, Bakunin Kropotkin, Kropotkin Bakunin.....how was this accecpted as research on "anarchism" by anyone. Its interesting, Illuminati be awesome but her take on modern Anarchism is straight up bullshit

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