In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Steve Bannon was widely credited as the “mastermind” behind Donald Trump’s win. Glowing profiles in mainstream outlets followed — a fact that was apparently on Trump’s mind when he removed the Breitbart propagandist from his White House perch as chief strategist. It was perhaps not surprising that a man as fundamentally driven by vainglory and lucre as Trump would eventually come to cross-purposes with Bannon, who, for all his credentials as a showbiz pundit, often aspired to be something like the intellectual (indeed, spiritual) sage of right-wing populism.
This remarkable tension between hyperreal sensationalism and spiritualist sensationalism are brought to the fore in Benjamin Teitelbaum’s excellent new book War for Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers. Part ethnography, part biography of Bannon, and part political analysis, War for Eternity draws on extensive interviews with Bannon and other intellectual scions on the far right to unpack the “ultraconservative ideology” of traditionalism that animates their transnational efforts.
The Reactionary War for Eternity
One of the key things that comes away from Teitelbaum’s ethnography is the idiosyncrasy, and indeed conceptual irreconcilability, of the different strands on the far right.
The traditionalist intellectuals are a motley collection of self-taught New Age spiritualists, fringe academics, online culture warriors, cleaned-up skinheads, neo-fascists, former Russian state philosophers, and more. Some, like Aleksandr Dugin and Bannon himself, are well known and enjoy something of a rock-star status on the far right. Others, like the Brazilian online troll Olavo de Carvalho and the disgraced former academic Jason Jorjani, are less well known.
They hold widely divergent views on a variety of issues — Bannon is staunchly pro-America and anti-China, while Dugin favors a new anti-Western Russo-Chinese alliance. The hypernationalists of Hungary’s Jobbik party are often rabidly Islamophobic and see themselves as waging a war in defense of Christendom, while many right-wing mystics find much to admire in the ultraconservative Islam of René Guénon, who rejects liberalism and embraces a totalizing vision of faith. Others on the far right, like Richard Spencer, have tried to rejuvenate concepts of race by emphasizing narratives of white deprivation and “ethnic replacement.” Still others see emphasizing race as too scientistic and insufficiently spiritual, a vulgar concession to modernity that — not coincidentally — helped bring down the Nazis.
What makes the clowns all part of the same circus is less their shared commitments than their mutual bêtes noires — namely, modernity. All believe that with the advent of modern liberalism — and its permissiveness, pluralism, and materialism — something fundamental was lost. More secular variants of traditionalism tend to emphasize a sense of community, belonging, and national purpose. More New Agey and mystical brands insist on abandoning materialism and returning to a more spiritually disciplined existence. As Teitelbaum puts it:
Modernization, to paint in broad strokes, involves the retreat of public religion in favor of reason. Corresponding to this, it entails a weakening of the symbolic in favor of the literal, and a declining interest in things that aren’t easily mathematicised and quantified — spirit, emotions, the supernatural — in favor of those that are, namely material things.
This emphasis on affect over rationalism has a deep history in right-wing thinking, from Edmund Burke’s focus on beauty and the sublime over reason to Joseph de Maistre’s insistence that reason is “worthless . . . because it only produces dispute.”
But contemporary traditionalism, unlike its predecessors, is global in character. They see modernity spreading inexorably across the world — so much so that many liberals ascribe an almost teleological inevitability to its triumph — and respond by making connections across borders. They are determined to not just put on the brakes, but to roll history back, though to what exactly is never clear.
More mainstream conservatives like the “Intellectual Dark Web” also push many regressive views, but concede enough to the power of modernity that they often try to give overtly mystical language about “order and chaos” a scientistic gloss. But as one mainlines deeper and deeper into the far right, such concessions to reason and modernity become less viable. Consequently, the appeals to affect seem to become ever shriller to compensate for their dissociation with anything tangible.
Since these doctrines cannot dignify themselves intellectually, they have to do so theatrically and bombastically, leading to the undeniably funny and kitschy quality that characterizes many alt-right displays. The unreal excess is a sign of deep-rooted weakness rather than the strength they so desperately want to project.
Speaking for the Working Class?
As Teitelbaum details, traditionalism’s fingerprints are all over reactionary world leaders. De Carvalho is linked to the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil; Dugin was once described as the “state philosopher” for Vladimir Putin; and Steve Bannon’s connections to Trump are well documented.
These traditionalist movements claim to be speaking for working-class interests. Bannon, Teitelbaum writes, “describes the working class or peasantry as being the caste that gives a society its defining characteristics”; they are “the fount of authenticity in inauthentic modern society.”
While Bannon’s traditionalism nominally values the spiritual over the material, “his plan for saving the working class focuses on economics.” Indeed, “spiritual exploration and development can germinate only when material needs are met.” This explains Bannon’s failed attempt to raise taxes on the rich.
On the surface, it seems traditionalism overlaps with leftist thought in at least two ways. Socialist theorists from G. A. Cohen to members of the Frankfurt School lament the ubiquitous nature of consumer capitalism, loss of community, and the growth of the atomized individual. Capitalism pits people against one another — we don’t see our fellow workers as worthy of solidarity, but instead as someone we need to outcompete.
Traditionalism offers an ostensibly similar diagnosis. Teitelbaum quotes Bannon mourning the morphing of capitalism into “a state-sponsored crony incarnation that enriched a select few with political connections, and a libertarian form of selfishness that took no care for community.”
Then there’s anti-colonialism. Leftists have shown how Western dominance, both cultural and material, has violently destroyed particular ways of life — for example, the indigenous cultures of Canada. In the face of homogenizing colonialism, leftists have made the case for a democratic world based on self-determination.
For the Russian traditionalist Dugin, American dominance has also been a disaster, creating a unipolar world where everything is measured against liberal standards of value and destroying cultural particularity. Dugin argues for a multipolar world “where different actors with varying visions . . . coexist and respect one another’s claim to their own present, past, and future,” “a multipolar world where difference rather than homogeneity thrives.”
A Real Working-Class Politics
In the past, we’ve defended the modernist project of securing moral equality and deeper freedom for all. And this is precisely where the Left and traditionalism diverge: the question of modernity.
While both might bemoan economic inequality and colonialism, traditionalism does so while intending to recover some vague lost spiritual nobility. When traditionalists speak of the rights of particular cultures to choose their own destiny, it is out of a distaste for universal human rights, a distinctly modernist idea.
The difference between leftist and traditionalist appeals to the working class is that the Left’s is grounded in a rationalist examination of the ways that the world could be fairer for more people — a questioning of how our societal habits might be contributing to injustice, and how we could implement a more justifiable social order.
Traditionalists advance the opposite appeal: let’s not question the impact that our habits and traditions might have (to marginalize or persecute), because these habits and traditions are rooted in some deeper and more spiritual essence. As Teitelbaum observes, if anyone attempts to derive a logically coherent version of traditionalism, “all of the vagaries come to play a larger role. What exactly is this essence, and who gets to decide? If a people is defined by its history, what happens to citizens whose personal background diverges from the norm?”
Submitting traditionalism to any kind of rational scrutiny reveals it for what it is: an appeal to fantasy, the wrapping of oneself in the blanket of vaguely defined yet comforting categories. It presents a fundamentally hierarchical vision of the world, compensating followers for a lack of material improvement with a sense that they are superior to degenerate liberals and dangerous foreigners.
The right-wing populism of figures like Steve Bannon, for instance, excludes huge swaths of workers, despite his claims of championing a working-class politics. Compare that to democratic socialism, which offers all workers not just better material conditions, but empowerment — extending basic economic and political rights that neoliberalism has allowed to wither away.
Unfortunately, the allure of traditionalism remains relatively strong, as people grope for a sense of meaning and community beyond the atomization and one-dimensionality of contemporary capitalism. But Medicare for All and democracy on the job are much more meaningful than mystical rhetoric about a transcendent source of insight only a few reactionary intellectuals are allowed to possess.