What Do Hippies and Far-Right Conspiracists Have in Common?

Absurdism, irony, and the need for meaning all explain the strange overlap between the two groups

“The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus, Edition-Originale.com

A recently published article entitled Nazi Hippies: When the New Age and Far-Right Overlap, written by Jules Evans for GEN, illustrates how new-age spiritualism and far-right extremism came to be intricately linked in Nazi Germany.

Summarising the research by Eric Kurlander (Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich), Evans points out how the top nazi leaders not only drew from occult theories to justify their twisted worldview but also were fervent believers in pseudo-scientific practices.

Evans concludes his article by pointing out that the current resurgences of new-age occultism, conspiracy theories, and emboldening racism cannot be understood separately. They must be treated as a common, at least partially unified phenomenon.

Extreme ideologies purport to satisfy our most fundamental needs for meaning and sincerity

Evans’ article does a great job highlighting the many connections between early-twentieth-century occultism and nazism, but, in my opinion, fails to answer the key question at stake:

Why would left-leaning, liberal hippies, adhere to far-right, nazi beliefs and conspiracy theories in the first place?

It turns out ideologies, whatever far end of the political spectrum they lean toward, rely on the same human traits to prosper: naivety, blind faith, confirmation bias, and a deep distrust of institutional knowledge.

More importantly, they purport to satisfy our most fundamental needs for meaning and sincerity.

By providing simplistic, often Manicheist answers to complex and ambiguous questions, they reassure us.

By providing us with an unironic perspective on events and people, they reaffirm the validity and authenticity of our beliefs.

We humans cannot accept the absence of meaning. Naturally, we look for patterns, for causality, for an explanation.

This need for meaning, for a clear explanation of our lives and purposes, is at the heart of Albert Camus’ philosophy of the Absurd, as introduced in The Myth of Sisyphus, a short and clear explanation of which can be found on philosophybreak.com:

Camus argues that a paradox lies at the heart of human experience. On the one hand, we are by nature curious animals who long for meaning and purpose — a fundamental reason for existing. On the other, we are not equipped to ever adequately satisfy this longing — Camus rejects every scientific, metaphysical, or religious attempt at doing so.

In other words, despite our yearning for an ultimate explanation for existence, in Camus’s mind such an explanation will always be beyond our comprehension.

And it is this hopeless space we occupy — between our impulse to ask deep questions and our inability to answer them — that Camus labels ‘the absurd’. Hence the image of Sisyphus: we build theories up, inevitably they crash back down, and compulsively we start again.

We humans cannot accept the absence of meaning. Naturally, we look for patterns, for causality, for an explanation.

Existentialism tells us that it is we who must create our own meaning and purposes. That our lives and fates are in our hands.

To some, this is exhilarating.

To others, however, this is dreadful. Daily life is complicated enough not to have to worry about metaphysical interrogations on top of it.

What if irony leads to a sinkhole of relativism and disavowal?

Camus considered his work ironic (linked essay in French), he wrote as much in a 1950 diary. His opus would prove that he did not mean it in a fatalist or defeatist sense. He understood irony as the contrast between the dread of human existence and “toute la lumière du monde” (the whole world’s light).

Since Camus, the word irony has taken on a new meaning.

In a fascinating Salon.com article published in 2014, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll talked about the negative effects of irony on the Arts and our culture, basing their argumentation around the work of a thinker fascinated by irony, David Foster Wallace.

I will quote the second paragraph of the article in its entirety, for it summarises the point I am making and the question that derives from it perfectly:

Twenty years ago, Wallace wrote about the impact of television on U.S. fiction. He focused on the effects of irony as it transferred from one medium to the other. In the 1960s, writers like Thomas Pynchon had successfully used irony and pop reference to reveal the dark side of war and American culture. Irony laid waste to corruption and hypocrisy. In the aftermath of the ’60s, as Wallace saw it, television adopted a self-deprecating, ironic attitude to make viewers feel smarter than the naïve public, and to flatter them into continued watching. Fiction responded by simply absorbing pop culture to “help create a mood of irony and irreverence, to make us uneasy and so ‘comment’ on the vapidity of U.S. culture, and most important, these days, to be just plain realistic.” But what if irony leads to a sinkhole of relativism and disavowal?

I would argue that irony did just that. Moral relativism has become the norm. On the one hand, this move towards a-moralism helped foster tolerance and acceptance of other people and their ways of life. On the other hand, it led to whataboutism and a society where judging actions on moral grounds has become nigh impossible.

Irony has turned moral judgement into personal aggression because it took away the legitimacy of morality.

In their article, Ashby and Carroll argue that artists in the 60s and later only had three philosophical stances available: “sentimentality, nihilism, or irony.” The revolt proposed by Camus or Sartre is no more an option.

This restricted choice extends to all of us. Faced with it, those savvier tend to choose irony as a way to elevate themselves; they “reject sincerity because they worry blind belief can lead to such evils as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism.”

Irony and amorality are not easy life choices. Once again, they force one to choose their own path, forging their belief systems along the way.

Nihilism seduces some, and we’ve unfortunately witnessed far too many times the horrors to which it leads.

Sincerity, on the other hand, is the way that reassures and tells us that meaning matters, that we matter and that our emotions, in the grand scheme of the universe, matter too. Sincerity rejects irony by atavism.

Sincerity […] can lead to such evils as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism.

A deep-rooted need for meaning, a will to understand causality and identify patterns, and a fundamental, metaphysical longing for sincerity. These human traits, combined with rational ignorance, make over-simplistic, world-explaining ideologies seductive to many. As an answer to the Absurd and in opposition to the intellectual, elitist irony, they reassure people looking for the meaning of their lives.

New-Age spiritualism, ancient occult theories, wacky cults, neo-nazi propaganda, alt-right internet memes, all of them offer easy-to-grasp answers to the lost souls that we are. It is therefore logical that believers in one should lean towards the others naturally.

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