In what world do the paths of mysticism, anti-modernism, anti-Semitism, neo-nazism, alt-right counterculture, far-right syndicated news and high-tech meta-data collection collide? What could possibly connect these disparate, contradictory and, in most cases, fringe elements of modern politics and culture? It this even important? Should we care?
For journalist and ethnographer Benjamin R Teitelbaum, the answer to this last question is most certainly yes. Grasping the connection is of enormous importance both in understanding the ideological underpinnings of right-wing populism and, more importantly, its impact on governments in Hungary, Brazil, Russia and the United States.
War for Eternity provides a fascinating account of the history and contemporary manifestations of the philosophy that is to be found at the intersection of these disparate threads, namely “Traditionalism”. Even more, it tells this intriguing story through the personality of its most influential figure: Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to US president Donald Trump.
Traditionalism is the name given to an obscure body of philosophy that emerged in the inter-war years in Europe. Disgusted by the materialism of the emerging modern world, and finding flaw in equal measure with capitalism and communism, writers such as the French philosopher René Guénon and Italian thinker Julius Evola went in search of alternatives.
They combined an interest in Sufi Islam, eastern mysticism, the occult and theosophy and mixed it with an anti-liberal authoritarianism. This intoxicating brew provided much of the intellectual justification for the fascist states to come.
While we may ridicule these now marginal writers, many of their key ideas were enormously influential in more mainstream literary and philosophical figures such as WB Yeats and Martin Heidegger.
Thankfully the more extreme forms languished at the margins of western culture as the 20th century gave way to the 21st. But in recent decades Traditionalist intellectuals have had a surprising influence on some of the world’s most powerful politicians.
In Russia the anti-modern nationalist writer Aleksandr Dugin emerged as a leading figure in the Russian-backed military action in east Ossetia, and remains active on the margins of Putin’s presidency. In Brazil, the more eclectic mystic Olavo de Carvalho is a key intellectual force in the right-wing Bolsonaro administration.
These highly controversial figures are the bridge between two seemingly separate worlds. The first is the cauldron of Pepe the Frog alt-right keyboard warriors, fringe far-right publishing houses like Arktos, and shadowy intelligence operations such as Jellyfish. The second includes presidents, ministers and governments in powerful countries.
Enter stage right Steve Bannon. A former US marine with a surprising interest in the occult, he has had more than an unusual career. After seven years in the army, he went on to be the vice-president of Goldman Sachs, a Hollywood producer with 18 movies to his name, co-founder of the right-wing media network Breitbart News, and vice-president of the highly controversial meta-data mining company Cambridge Analytica. He became a household name following his appointment as Donald Trump’s campaign manager and then chief strategist to the president.
While all of this is public knowledge, what War for Eternity brings to the table is an consideration of the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of Bannon’s worldview.
Teitelbaum has a long-standing interest in the politics of the far right and the philosophy of Traditionalism. He combines this knowledge with the tools of an ethnographer, studying the ecology of the populist far right on its own ground, meeting with its protagonists, getting to know their world from the inside. The book is based on hours of interviews with all of the key protagonists, including Bannon.
But this is no dry academic text, Teitelbaum writes like a journalist, in a style that is engaging, empathetic but always critical.
‘Hicks and rednecks’
The result is a fascinating book that walks us through the web of meetings, communications and publications that connect Bannon with a complex array of characters. Some are funny and fringe, to use the authors words “hicks, rednecks and bizarre occultist”. Others are much more sinister, such as the Chinese billionaire Guy Wengui, British Brexit business backer Aaron Banks and Russian ideologue Aleksandr Dugin.
All of this provides insight into what Bannon was trying to achieve when at Trump’s side. As a believer in the anti-liberal and anti-modern Traditionalist world view, the president’s adviser was “seeking to harness the disruptive anti-democratic radicalism that was hiding in public apathy” during the Trump campaign. As his senior White House aide, he was engaged in “disassembly”, tearing things down to create a new post-liberal world.
There is little doubt that in the early days of the Trump administration Bannon had real influence, whether in controversial policies such as the Muslim travel ban or key appointments such as the education secretary and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But his controversial advice on domestic and foreign policy was his undoing. For many in the alt-right, Donald Trump’s controversial response to the murder of Heather D Heyer at the hands of a far-right activist in Charlottesville 2017 was an indication of their entry to the corridors of power. But it was in fact the beginning of the end, both for their movement and for Bannon’s career in the White House.
Bannon’s post-White House relationships with both Dugin and de Carvalho bring the book to an end, telling the story of the three Traditionalist intellectuals seeking to redraw the global geo-political map, with competing arguments over whether the United States should be aligned with China or Russia.
One wonders though whether, just as with Evola and Guénon, the influence of Dugin, de Carvalho and Bannon will be short-lived and shallow, ultimately consigned to a minor footnote in history.
War for Eternity is informed, engaging and insightful. It adds to our knowledge of Bannon, right-wing populism and the intersection of Traditionalist philosophy and far-right politics globally. It’s also a very enjoyable read.