Witchcraft is not subversive – UnHerd
After the bankers return home for the night, the City of London becomes a mysterious place. This demonstrates secrecy and subversion; you can sense the presence of something obscure beneath the city’s daily customs and commerce.
It was once a hotspot for secret societies and occultists, such as Aleister Crowley and Francis Bacon. And it is here that the 17th-century English philosopher allegedly associates himself with a group of Rosicrucians – a Western esoteric movement based on Kabbalistic and Gnostic thought.
This feeling of rebellion is not limited to the past; sMillennial wathes and Gen-Zers are turning to online occultism and ritual magick in what appears to be a rebellion against modern disenchantment.
Digital forms of New Age spirituality are going especially viral on TikTok (or WitchTok) – virtual transatlantic covens gathering to cast spells on politicians (and planets)to the idea of ”expression» which is currently in fashion. These tendencies are associated with politics, where magic is channeled into anti-capitalist “spiritual activism”.
The occult tends to appeal to young people because it appears subversive. The idea of Francis Bacon and his cabal of Rosicrucians practicing magic behind closed doors seem inherently subcultural; the mark of an “alternative way of life”. Even the word itself – derived from Latin occult, meaning “hidden” – suggests something dissenting; a left path away from the masses. Its compatibility with anti-establishment sentiments therefore tends not to be questioned.
Today, however, these connotations are misleading. If occultism may have been subversive in the context of the religious societies of the 16th and 17th centuries, it quickly ceased to be so with the birth of modernity. Why? Because the heirs of Western occult philosophy were also the heirs of secular liberalism and capitalism that dominate the West today.
Far from being a black sheep in Western intellectual history, it was Bacon – along with Hobbes, Locke and Hume – who set the standards for our time. He was the father of British empiricism and the scientific method: the cornerstone of liberal and rationalist modernity.
Bacon was one of the most proactive actors I’ven build a world free from tradition and “superstition”. He was part of the same revolt against religion that brought about the Age of Reason and ultimately the materialistic dogmas upheld by contemporary science, philosophy and politics. On a more conceptual level, Western occultism goes hand in hand with the founding principle of the modern era: the domination of man over nature.
It is no coincidence that Bacon straddled the two worlds, when the two emerged from the same reaction against religion and the desire to seek more “rational” and autonomous ways to arrive at the truth. Liberal capitalism and occultism are two fruits of the Enlightenment. Both place man at the very center of the universe, attempting to emancipate him from the constraints of tradition and the natural world itself. Both also attempt to manipulate nature, either with magic or brute force. If one clings to a veneer of transcendence and the other admits his own materialism, both tend towards the same goal: “freeing human beings from fear and installing them as masters”.
At least that is what early critical theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer saw. like enlightenmentthe end of the game. For them, the subjugation of nature which has been justified by 17th century rationality was inextricably linked to “‘bourgeois liberalism’ and capitalism – even if, ironically, they themselves ended up subscribing to the materialism and atheism that defined these systems.
Since this subjugation of nature is precisely what motivated Bacon to pursue the occult, it is clear that Western esotericism does not subvert the impulse behind capitalism, but complements it. Nothing sums this up better than the “magic” of Aleister Crowley, the most influential occultist in the West after Bacon, which he founded on the sole principle of “do what you want”; a sentiment hardly distinguishable from that of modern liberalism.
This overlap is strongly felt in the New Age movement of the 60s and 70s – a strange and contradictory synthesis of near-transcendent freedom and consumerist self-realization. Despite its reputation for rebellion, the flower power generation only went one step further in the founding principle of Enlightenment liberalism, subverting tradition and nature more forcefully than ever. Jtheir attraction to the occult was hardly subversive; it simply served the 17th century urge to make the man (and now, with birth controlwoman) master of nature.
Despite the deeply tangled roots of Enlightenment and occult spirituality, the appeal of the latter lies in its performative claim to be an insurrection allegedly directed against the ruling forces of our society. Hence his attraction to young people as an alternative to “organized religion”, the Protestant work ethic, or whatever thin the remnants of traditional thought remain in the public sphere.
But this is based on an outdated view: that there is a religious (and specifically Christian) hegemony. Many WitchTok videos play on this idea, sometimes stereotyping and mocking Christians for their alleged ignoring“irrational” beliefs or lack of “Critical mind”. But far from being truly rebellious, their attitudes are only echoes of those which govern the modern world.
WitchTok, being effectively stuck in the 17th century, forgets that the status quo has changed: it is now secularism that dominates in the Western world. Yet the members of his virtual covens continue to rebel against a phantom hegemony, using magic against power structures and religious dogmas that today are too weak to oppress anyone. It is from this illusion that magic merges with activism, as in the case of feminist witches put a spell on trump. Despite sharing a philosophical genealogy with the modern establishment, gaining magical power becomes a means of speaking out against this establishment.
As with Francis Bacon, this power is of a distinctly individualistic and rationalist nature, seeking to manipulate nature to suit human will—much like the “bourgeois liberalism” of Adorno and Horkheimer. Almost every popular practice on WitchTok is geared towards personal gratification, even if it means “manifesting”. money, beauty and Success or cast spells on enemies. Although they oppose modern capitalism, their individualism and materialism eventually succumb to it. It’s exactly the same paradox that ran through the counter-culture of the sixties.
One could even compare WitchTokers’ attempts to “manifest” or “change of reality” (a tendency to induce alternate states of consciousness — while filming oneself, of course) to the scientific method, in line with Bacon’s double heritage. When TikTok users sift through various magical practices to find the one that works for them, they undergo the same procedure of experimentation to arrive at empirical evidence as in scientific research. That is, they are not really “superstitious”, but attached to the principles of modern science and rationality.
Once again, TikTok’s romanticization of witchcraft as something subversive overlooks the reality that Western occultism arrived in tandem with the very Enlightenment ideologies that underlie modernity. His desires to forge transcendence “autonomously” and “rationally” do not run counter to the status quo; these are the founding principles of the status quo.
In reality, to be truly subversive these days would be to break free from the shackles of individualism. It would be a question of drawing wisdom from the traditions that modernity has so violently delegitimized, and submission to nature rather than seeking to manipulate (or mutilate) it. Outlook who are unlikely to appeal at many millennial witches, Gen-Zers or TikTok.