Arundhati Roy Says the Pandemic is a Portal. Steve Bannon Probably Agrees.

Arundhati Roy, the renowned Indian author and activist, has called the pandemic “a portal.” In an essay for the Financial Times, Roy wrote:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Benjamin Teitelbaum’s new book, War for Eternity:  Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers, suggests that Steve Bannon likely agrees with Roy, although undoubtedly with a different vision of what a new world should look like. I picked up the book to read about Olavo de Carvalho, the astrologer and former communist, guru to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Given how Bannon employed Cambridge Analytica to exploit divisions within U.S. society to propel Donald Trump into the White House, it may be hard to digest thinking of him as a spiritual person. But Teitelbaum’s book describes the framework for that spirituality, Traditionalism.

Traditionalism is a philosophy that dates to the late 19th century. One of its main thinkers, Julius Evola, was an Italian associated with Mussolini’s Fascist regime who may also have been influenced by the Futurist movement. Italy’s Futurist movement arose in the aftermath of the first World War and emphasized the beauty of destruction and its role in clearing a path for progress. Traditionalist thinking also places value on razing.

Traditionalism sees modern society as emphasizing the material over the spiritual. According to Teitelbaum, Traditionalism “condemns the nation state” just as it points to shared core elements in all the world’s major religions. Traditionalists need to embrace a religion, but one of its founders, for example, was a French emigrant to North Africa who converted to Sufism. Consequently, Traditionalism isn’t necessarily Christian-centric, although Bannon has certainly adopted Christianity as a unifying force among far-right groups.

The philosophy also posits that human existence is divided into four eras, each one ruled by the dominant class and values of its time. The apex of human evolution, according to Traditionalism, is represented in an era in which a class of priests or spiritual figures rules. The next moment of evolution is characterized by a warrior class, then merchants. The lowest rung is the era of the masses, supposedly the time we currently live in. Critically, the way to shift from one era to the next is through a process of destruction.

This emphasis on the resurrective role of decimation echoes the ideas of certain extreme Evangelicals, several of whom surround Donald Trump in the White House. The concept of the “Rapture,” the second coming of Christ and the salvation of the select faithful, also hinges on a war that demolishes the Middle East. Teitelbaum, however, says Bannon opposes the kind of U.S. foreign intervention meant to stoke such a war.

There’s a certain irony in Bannon espousing U.S. isolationism at the same time he has worked hard for an alliance between the predominantly white and Christian countries of the US, Europe and Russia in the name of subverting modernity.

Still, understanding Bannon’s philosophical influences helps put those efforts inside and out of the U.S. into context. Teitelbaum’s book offers the reader insight into Bannon’s thinking and his rejection of “the America-as-idea concept,” which values individualism over community, equality and democracy over a transcendent identity and spirituality. War for Eternity outlines an existential vision behind appointing cabinet members who have track records of undermining the areas they are charged with protecting, like Betsy DeVos (education) and Scott Pruitt (environment). That this agenda overlaps with financial interests would likely make it easier to implement.

Teitelbaum also positions Bannon globally; he isn’t the only Traditionalist power player. Nor is Bannon’s interpretation of the philosophy universal. There are two other éminence grises Teitelbaum profiles:  Olavo de Carvalho and Aleksandr Dugin. Olavo has lived in rural Virginia since 2005 and gained recognition after his acolyte, Jair Bolsonaro, won Brazil´s presidency in 2018. After that election, Olavo told America’s Quarterly that Brazil’s violence problem could have been resolved if 20,000 communists had been killed during  its last dictatorship.

And, like Bannon, Olavo suggested cabinet members who seemed diametrically opposed to the mandates they took on. Ernesto Araújo, Brazil´s Foreign Minister, for example, published an article arguing that Brazil should revisit its pacific foreign policies (“We aren’t in the world to be ‘Miss Congeniality’”) and suggesting Brazil ally itself with far-right governments like Hungary, Italy, and Trump´s U.S. against “the China-Europe-American-left axis.”

Dugin, on the other hand, is Russian and has close ties to Vladimir Putin. Dugin wrote Foundations of Geopolitics, which Teitelbaum says was assigned reading for Russian military leaders. Teitelbaum quotes the first version of the book where it proposesRussia “introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts…thus destabilizing the internal political processes in the U.S..”

According to Teitelbaum, Bannon sees national borders as a bulwark against China’s “predatory capitalism.” National sovereignty, in his view, not only ensures that distinct cultures survive, but also that the citizens of those countries have a voice in decision-making. Of course, Bannon ignores the fact that the United States has numerous cultures as he focuses on the culture of rural white, working-class Americans. Nonetheless, for Bannon, borders become a physical manifestation of a transcendent national essence. They become a source of protection against materialistic globalism. 

This anti-China vision of a western alliance unites Olavo and Bannon. It also helps explain why Bolsonaro has openly attacked China, even while exports there sustain his agribusiness base. The need to destroy modernity and the structures that sustain it, such as public education, allows the reader to see an agenda that can go hand in hand with privatization.

Teitelbaum writes that Bannon has also attempted to enlist Dugin into this white, Christian union. But Dugin has a different perspective. He idealizes a multi-polar world where U.S. hegemony is at least contested if not lost entirely. Dugin also emphasizes a Eurasian alliance in which Russia and China coordinate and represent an alternative to the U.S.’s materialism.

Traditionalists are not the only ones concerned with the status quo. During a July presidential debate last year, Marianne Williamson, the spiritual guru, told viewers:  “If you think any of this wonkiness deals with the dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.” Her words could hardly have been more prescient.

Six months before this debate, Bannon called Teitelbaum and encouraged him to write an article on Williamson. Prior to her presidential candidacy, Williamson was known for preaching love. Her campaign had a viral moment because she called on the U.S. to pay reparations for slavery. Teitelbaum concedes that Bannon’s call may have been a ploy to counter his media image as a hate monger. The author also suggests, however, that the call reveals Bannon’s crusade for a world that prioritizes the spiritual over the material.

With nationwide protests and a global pandemic, the United States is poised on the razor’s edge. Bannon himself may be open to a new spiritual order like the one espoused by Williamson and Roy, but he has already unleashed powerful forces in the service of a racist, authoritarian vision. Now the question is:  who will triumph:  the “dark psychic force” Bannon has helped unleash or those occupying the streets calling for an end to a racist, capitalist system?