Covid-19: the crisis radical “Traditionalists” expected

Image: Elyeser Szturm

Steve Bannon, Putin protégé Alexandr Dugin and other high-profile right-wing operatives are all adherents of a dark and powerful ideology who see the coronavirus crisis as a rare opportunity to advance their ultra-conservative ideas.

By Benjamin Teitelbaum*

“It is a kind of divine censure, a divine decree against humanity”, I hear the deep accented voice on the phone on March 17, 2020.

At first, his words sounded like a predictable response to the coronavirus disaster by a religious fanatic — like the sermons of fundamentalists who see the evil in HIV epidemics or God's punishment on 11/XNUMX for moral impiety. But the person I was talking to on the phone from my isolated home in the Colorado mountains saw a different kind of retribution at play: "It's a kind of punishment," he continued, "for globalization."

Russian philosopher and political operative Alexandr Dugin thinks in an unusual way. Inaccurately labeled a right-wing extremist, a neo-fascist or a populist, he is able to identify with the discreet label of “Traditionalism”. In other words: he finds himself fighting the totality of the modern world.

Traditionalism is a radical doctrine – so radical that far-right scholars like myself have often dismissed it as an obscure curiosity, devoid of relevant political consequences. Some of its early right-wing adherents believed that a race of ethereal Aryans once lived at the North Pole and advocated the establishment of a celibate patriarchy of warrior priests in place of democracy. It often seems more pretense than politics; Dungeons and Dragons [RPG, in which players from D&D create characters who embark on imaginary adventures, face monsters, accumulate treasure and power] for racists, as a former student of mine said.

However, discarding Traditionalism is no longer an option, now that Dugin and his ilk are gaining exceptional influence around the world. These ideologues infused a major political party in Hungary, the government of Vladimir Putin and, later, the government of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro through figures such as Steve Bannon and Olavo de Carvalho, a renegade astrologer and philosopher who advises the Brazilian government on foreign and domestic policy.

I've been talking to them for almost two years while researching my book War for Eternity, and I witnessed when they tried (fought) to collaborate in advancing a vision stranger than mere nationalism or populism, broader than the destiny of any nation. But some now see the coronavirus as a rare opportunity for advancement.

They, of course, are not alone. Dissenting voices of various stripes regard the current crisis as a potential watershed moment, introducing a new set of risks and rewards, winners and losers. His judgments will take place in our personal routines, but also in testing and reordering broader social and political forms. Liberalism won the battles of the XNUMXth century, as we are often told. Democracy, individualism, free movement of people, goods and money seemed the best method to establish security, stability and wealth. But now, in the world we have entered – a world where domestic production and social isolation are virtues – what ideology is ready to benefit from it?

Always with a capital T, Traditionalism fuses the teachings of chosen religions to condemn the modern world because of its secularism and lack of all kinds of boundaries. It was originally a philosophical and spiritual school, with a French convert to Islam named René Guénon (1886–1951) as its main patriarch, although Traditionalism was radicalized into reactionary politics by an Italian thinker and collaborator of Mussolini named Julius Evola. . He sees time as moving in cycles, not linearly, from a Golden Age to a Dark Age of collapse and then abruptly back to gold in ceaseless motion.

Except for a transient moment of cataclysm, in this view time equals destruction, and past, present, and future lose meaning in a cycle in which our history is also our destiny. Meanwhile, the decline of society, according to Traditionalism, refers to the spread of materialism and homogenization at the expense of spirituality and hierarchy (this also explains why Traditionalism cultivates an unusual apocalyptic yearning).

If during the Golden Age society is stratified, and different people follow separate social and religious paths, the rise of darkness implies the total breakdown of difference and the leveling of global humanity in pursuit of its baser desires. It is the fusion of these beliefs and their association with cyclicality that separates traditionalists on the right from more mainstream religious conservatives such as Ross Douthat. Indeed, modern traditionalists use this lens to regard globalism and the seemingly chaotic circulation of money, goods, power and people as symbols of a decaying secularism and a sign that collapse – and with it a change of age – is at hand. .

At least that's how Steve Bannon sees it. I spoke with the former campaign coordinator and special adviser to Donald Trump during a gap in his schedule, now dominated by activities related to the coronavirus outbreak (he has hosted a daily radio show dedicated to the topic since January 25). What we are witnessing now, he claims, is the turning of this Dark Ages – the Kali Yuga, as he calls it, referring to Hinduism's account of cyclic time. Signs of this are a convergence of three impending catastrophes:

“You have a huge pandemic. Second, you have an economic crisis, and part of that is these travel and service economy disruptions, which are horrible, but then, more profoundly, you have a systemic problem, one is the supply chain -- we don't manufacture any medicine here, we do not manufacture any of the gloves. But deeper than that is the globalization project, where we essentially ship everything to China to manufacture. We don't do anything. So we have this system that can quickly collapse. And now we've unleashed something that could be much bigger than the first two: we're in a financial storm, a financial crisis."

The collapsing economy, he explains, is born out of liquidity and solvency problems. Underlying all of this is “globalization”: in his view, the inability of states to erect meaningful borders regulating the movement of people and the production of goods.

Alexandr Dugin speaks in similar terms, though at times with piercing glee. "The present cosmic cycle is coming to an end." He knew the turning point was approaching, Dugin tells me; the reign of democracy, the inability of most political systems to discuss anything other than material wealth, the loss of community born of mass migration. The coronavirus pandemic has simply tied up our already chaotic trading channels with poison.

Dugin is often described as a major influencer of Putin's expansionist foreign policy. He rarely held an official position in government, and many of his actions were absurd and bizarre. But his books and thoughts saturate the intelligentsia Russia's military for decades – like Bannon, his impact on politics is easily overestimated and underestimated. Traditionalism inspired Dugin to fight modernity through geopolitics and conventional warfare, considering his homeland Russia and Eurasia the bastion of Tradition, and the United States the ship of diabolical globalism. In addition to pamphlets offering philosophical and spiritual justifications for rejecting liberalism, he has also used protests and diplomacy to pressure Russian military incursions into Georgia and Ukraine, as well as increasing unity between Russia, Turkey, Iran and China.

The objective is to break the world hegemony of the United States, he explains. It is to end the homogenizing impact of centralized political and cultural government and, instead, to allow the fragmentation of the globe into limited local communities. There could be echoes of leftist anti-imperialism and cultural relativism in its rhetoric – if it were not also infused with a contempt for democracy, a spiritual devotion to precedent and a transparent alignment with the expansionist ambitions of a military state.

It is surprising, then, that Dugin and Bannon sought collaboration with each other when they met in secret in Rome in November 2018. Dugin and Bannon may represent opposing interests at the level of national politics, but they recognized a deeper bond as two traditionalists who emerged in power independently of each other at approximately the same historical moment. Their communication, however, has to do with geopolitics: Bannon has been pressing Dugin to shift his allegiances and embrace the United States, to use his mild but powerful platform of influence to advocate Russia's return to the Judeo-Christian West and the rejection of China.

The effort is less formal and public than Bannon's ill-fated "Movement"; that can make everything more auspicious. And his motivations are professional as well: Bannon is being paid handsomely by fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui to undermine the Communist Party of China on all fronts, however this stands in the way of Bannon's potential partnership with Dugin. The Russian philosopher sees the United States as essentially and forever a progressive, imperial, and liberal state, while Bannon believes the country has a deeper premodern core. Among the two's various agreements and disagreements now lies the motivation for divergent responses to the coronavirus outbreak.

Bannon's early attention to the virus (a welcome alternative to Fox News and other conservative media's dismissal of the pandemic) stemmed from his focus on China. He claims he became aware of the turmoil in Wuhan in 2019, during the discovery and attempt to mitigate the virus. Messages from him have since stuck to direct reports, along with praise for politicians who took the cause seriously (mostly Democratic governors, in fact). But he is not shy about placing the blame for the outbreak on the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), calling it not the “Chinese virus”, as Trump does, but the “Communist Party virus”.

Sinophile Dugin, who lives on and off in Shanghai, doesn't speak in such terms. He tells me: “We see now that, in dealing with the coronavirus, the first reaction is to return from globalization to a more concrete local society. It is a refusal of liberal dogmatism that markets and openness could solve everything.” This, according to Dugin, puts pressure on the West to abandon secularism, embrace the state over the individual and stagnation over the movement. And while he stopped short of celebrating the mass pandemic that is killing tens of thousands around the world, he praised the coronavirus's ability to shed light on what he sees as truth: "America must now choose between life and liberalism."

When I put some of Dugin's thought out to Bannon, he pushes back. The West will come out on top, he says, sounding like a typical American conservative. Our open and free society model will produce more innovation to face the crisis, while China's dictatorship will lose legitimacy through its cover-ups and corruption. Echoes of Dugin and typical Traditionalism resurfaced, however, as Bannon began to describe what reforms needed to be taken now. “Turn everything off,” he says. "Take draconian action... when you have to go through hell, go through it as quickly as possible." Enforce movement and trade bans, in other words: free and open societies can rise to the top, but not by being free and open.

Before long, our conversation is about the rootless and soulless behaviors of individualism that will be punished by death, and where there is the bold action of the strongman and the collective, and the reverence for history embodied by mobilization on behalf of the elders, will be rewarded. Noticing that he displayed some reverence for the moment, I asked, "Will we be in a better place on the other side?"

He made a rare pause before speaking, slowly. “We will be in a different place. I think it will be the start of us getting to a better place... I think you're going to have a much more cohesive, stronger sense of community when we get through this, because the only way we're going to get through this is the sense of community. We all need to come together on this thing, or we're not all going to make it through this. I think we'll see that. “

Yes, he sees something to be gained here. As for Dugin? His parting words to me were revealing: "The virus is a sign of the end times."

“Did he mean 'end times'?” I thought to myself, starting to decode Dugin's effective but broken English in my mind. But moments after I hung up, I realized he might be making a deliberate traditionalist reference to the demise of our faith in progress and integration – that our experiment in creating an increasingly free and interconnected world is receiving a brutal reprimand; that we will soon learn to give up on progress, history or "time", and return to a more virtuous eternity. And in this case, I don't think he's the only one.

*Benjamin Teitelbaum is an expert on right-wing radicalism and professor of musicology and international affairs at the University of Colorado Boulder. His writings were published in the New York Times, Foreign PolicyAt Los Angeles Review of Books, Wall Street Journal and Atlantic.

Translation: Ricardo Kobayaski e Stefanni Mota

Originally published on The Nation []

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