Why So Much of Paganism Isn’t Counter-Cultural

In a recent article at UnHerd, entitled “Witchcraft Isn’t Subversive”, Esme Partridge explores the contradiction of popular forms of witchcraft which claim to be counter-cultural, but which are in fact a manifestation of the dominant paradigm of modernity. I’ve written about this contradiction myself before. It’s not just cooptation by capitalism that’s the problem. It’s that contemporary Paganism is historically intertwined with Western occultism, which treated magic not as an expression of re-enchantment, but as yet another means of exerting the human will over the natural world. I’ve excerpted Partridge’s article below. And if you’re interested in reading more, check out Trudy Frisk’s 1997 article in Trumpeter entitled, “Paganism, Magic, and the Control of Nature”

Partridge begins her article with Francis Bacon, the 17th century thinker who was simultaneously the father of modern science (in its most objectifying form) and an occultist who, rather than rejecting magic, sought to purify it of religious influences.

Excerpts from “Witchcraft Isn’t Subversive” by Esme Partridge:

Occultism tends to attract young people because it appears subversive. The idea of Francis Bacon and his cabal of Rosicrucians practising magic behind closed doors seems inherently subcultural; a mark of an “alternative lifestyle”. Even the word itself — derived from the Latin occultus, meaning “hidden” — suggests something dissident; a left-hand path leading away from the masses. Its compatibility with anti-establishment sentiments thus tends to go unquestioned. 

Today, though, these connotations are deceptive. While occultism may have been subversive in the context of 16th and 17th-century religious societies, it rapidly ceased to be so with the birth of modernity. Why? Because the heirs of Western occult philosophy were also the heirs of the secular liberalism and capitalism that dominates the West today.

Far from being a black sheep in Western intellectual history, it was Bacon — along with Hobbes, Locke, and Hume — who laid down the norms of our time. He was the father of British empiricism and the scientific method: the cornerstone of liberal, rationalistic modernity.

Bacon was one of the most proactive actors in building 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 materialist dogmas upheld by contemporary science, philosophy and politics. On a more conceptual level, Western occultism came hand-in-hand with the founding principle of the modern age: Man’s domination over nature.

It is no coincidence that Bacon straddled both worlds, when both emerged from the same reaction against religion and the will to seek more “rational” and autonomous ways of arriving at truth. Liberal capitalism and occultism are both fruits of the Enlightenment. Both place man at the very centre of the universe, attempting to emancipate him from the constraints of tradition and the natural world itself. Both also attempt to manipulate nature, be that with magic or brute force. Though one clings onto a veneer of transcendence and the other admits to its own materialism, both tend towards this same end: “liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters”. [from Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. The quote goes on “Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant.”]

At least, this is what the early critical theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer saw as the Enlightenment’s end game. For them, the subjugation of nature that was justified by 17th century rationality was inextricably linked to “‘bourgeois liberalism” and capitalism …

Given that 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 compliments it.

This overlap is strongly felt in the New Age movement of the Sixties and Seventies — a strange and self-contradictory synthesis of quasi-transcendent freedom and consumerist self-actualisation. Despite its reputation for rebellion, the flower power generation only took the grounding principle of Enlightenment liberalism a step further, overthrowing tradition and nature in ways more forceful than ever before. Their attraction to the occult was hardly subversive; it simply served the 17th century urge to make man (and now, with birth control, woman) master of nature.

Despite the deeply entangled roots of the Enlightenment and occult spirituality, the latter’s appeal is reliant on its performative claim to be an insurgency allegedly directed against the ruling forces of our society. Hence its attraction to young people as an alternative to “organised religion”, the Protestant work ethic, or whatever thin residues of traditional thought remain in the public sphere. 

But this relies on an outdated view: that there is such a thing as religious (and specifically Christian) hegemony. …

WitchTok [and Paganism generally], being effectively stuck in the 17th Century, forgets that the status quo has shifted: it is now secularism that dominates in the Western world. Yet the members of its virtual covens continue to rebel against a phantom hegemony, using magic against power structures and religious dogmas that are too weak today to oppress anybody. It is out of this delusion that magic becomes merged with activism, as in the case of feminist witches hexing Trump. Despite sharing a philosophical genealogy with the modern establishment, acquiring magical power becomes a means of rising up against that establishment.

As with Francis Bacon, this power is of a distinctly individualist, rationalist kind, that looks to manipulate nature at the command of the human willDespite standing in opposition to modern capitalism, their individualism and materialism ends up succumbing to it; the very same paradox that ran through Sixties counterculture.

Once again, TikTok’s [and Paganism’s] romanticisation of witchcraft as something subversive forgets the reality that Western occultism arrived in tandem with the very Enlightenment ideologies underpinning modernity. …

In reality, to be truly subversive in this day and age would be to free oneself from the shackles of individualism. It would entail drawing wisdom from the traditions that modernity has so violently delegitimised, and submitting to nature rather than seeking to manipulate (or mutilate) it. Prospects that are unlikely to appeal to many Millennials, Gen-Zers, or TikTok witches.

One thought on “Why So Much of Paganism Isn’t Counter-Cultural

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  1. I agree with this, John. Certainly the ways that modern Paganism is transgressive are mostly about self-indulgent appetites rather than changing the human relationship with the rest of nature. There’s nothing wrong with the self-indulgent appetites in and of themselves, but because of the poisonous prudery and shaming of the Christian Overculture, they overshadow what would be a lot more revolutionary, which would be to do actual work to oppose capitalism and restore the reciprocal relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world.

    You might be interested in my blog post at https://atheopaganism.wordpress.com/2022/01/07/reciprocity-vs-the-overculture/ and the podcast episode it links to.

    Good post–thank you.

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