I’ve mentioned in previous essays here that our civilization’s age of reason is ending. That’s a familiar event in history. At a certain point in the life cycle of every civilization—about the time that its artistic traditions are really hitting their stride, and before political and economic centralization sets in—intellectuals become entranced with the idea that there must be a rational order underlying the blooming, buzzing confusion of the universe. In due time they find certain things that can be understood using rational models; most people hail the triumph of reason, and take it for granted that everything else can and will be reduced to obedience in due time.
Of course that’s not how things work out because the universe, with its usual serene indifference to all things human, refuses to play along. Crisis arrives when too many failed predictions turn rationalism into a laughing stock, and the whole enterprise grinds to a halt as people abandon it for approaches that work better. That’s what happened in ancient China, in the twilight of the Chou dynasty, when its rationalist schools failed to bring good government; it’s what happened in ancient Greece in the twilight of the classical age, when its rationalist philosophy failed to inspire moral virtue. It’s happening now, in the twilight of the industrial era, as our rationalist sciences fail to provide the Tomorrowland future we’ve been promised so many times.
One of the ways you know that an age of reason is coming to an end is that magic comes back into fashion. Here again, we’re following the usual path at the usual pace. The revival of magic that began in a very quiet way in the 1850s, and first found a wider public in the 1890s, went into overdrive in the 1970s and hasn’t looked back. The frantic pushback of the rationalists that gave rise to the “skeptic” movement of the late 20th century—that word belongs in quotes, since the movement never showed the least scrap of skepticism toward even the most absurd or meretricious claims of the scientific establishment or its corporate sponsors—got funding for parapsychologists cut from most university budgets, but accomplished little else; its impact on the popularity of occultism in the wider world was minimal at best. Again, it’s a familiar story.
One of the consequences that follows the end of an age of reason is of particular importance just now, however. The mere fact that magic comes back into fashion does nothing to guarantee that the magic being practiced anew will be done with any degree of competence. Quite the contrary, most of the people who take up magic in the twilight of an age of reason are still far too influenced by the ideologies of the departing era, and so they generally make a hash of things. That’s especially visible in the realm of political magic.
Yes, there is such a thing as political magic, and we’ve seen quite a bit of it over the last decade or so. In fact one of my recent books, The King in Orange, is about the magical dimensions of the 2016 US presidential election and its aftermath. Quite a bit of magic was thrown around by all sides in that nationwide donnybrook. A modest amount was competent, but most of it was either the fumbling of enthusiastic beginners or the blunders of people who thought they knew much more about magic than they did. That’s embarrassing to watch, it risks bringing the ancient and honorable art of magic into disrepute, and there also tends to be a lot of collateral damage.
I’m sorry to say that we’re heading into yet another contentious presidential election next year, and doubtless there will be plenty of magic deployed this time around, too. With this in mind, I’m going to give some instruction in the art of magical combat, on the off chance that the sides in the upcoming electoral squabble might listen. Yes, I know, this has risks, but it seems to me that the downsides of letting people flail around like drunken halfwits, trying to bash each other with weapons they don’t know how to use, are considerably worse.
Of course I also know that this may be wasted effort. “Guard the Mysteries! Constantly reveal them!” wrote Lew Welch That utterance is less of an oxymoron than it looks. It’s one of the eternal verities that you can bellow the deepest secrets of magic right out in public—it’s been done, many times—and only those people who are ready to hear them will pay any attention at all. If the would-be political mages of the 2024 election aren’t willing to listen, we can expect the same sort of indecisive floundering we got the last two times. I can only hope that enough people are bored or sickened with the results that they might be open to something a little less pointless.
With that said, let’s start with some necessary clarifications. If your exposure to magic consists of reading denunciations of it by ranting skeptics, you know nothing about it. If it consists of fantasy novels and Hollywood spectacles, you know even less. Let’s be even more specific and formulate a rule, which I hereby name Rowling’s Law: if it looks like the sort of schlock you’d see in a Harry Potter movie, it’s not real magic. (To Rowling’s Law we may as well add Brooks’ Corollary, which states that the Harry Potter franchise has as much to do with real magic as Young Frankenstein has to do with real science.)
Magic is the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. It doesn’t affect matter directly, and it can’t be used to overturn the laws of nature. Within those limits it can accomplish astounding things. If you examine your experience of the world, you’ll find that only a modest portion of it depends on the material realities that surround you: much more depends on what you perceive, feel, and think about those realities and the subtler social, psychological, and spiritual realities that also surround you.
These latter things are the raw materials of magic. The tools of magic are will and imagination; the power that flows through magic can come from many sources, of which human emotion is generally the easiest to access; the forms that give magic direction and effect are symbols and symbolic action. The effects of magic are complex, and depend on factors that modern science has gone out of its way not to understand, but the basic principle can be stated simply enough. A symbol held in one mind, charged with will and desire, can affect another mind even when there’s no obvious way for the effect to take place; that’s the central thesis of magic. What this implies, of course, is that individual human minds are not as isolated from one another as most current ideologies like to insist; this is another basic postulate of magic
Those are our definitions. Next up are the rules for effective magical combat, but before we get to those I’m going to have to insert two warnings. I’ve learned from long experience that I can say these things in so many words and people will blow right by them in their quest to misunderstand magic, but the effort has to be made. Okay? Here goes:
Warning No. 1: The rules that follow apply only to magic. They don’t apply to military or political strategy, say, or anything else that takes place principally in the material world.
Warning No. 2: The rules that follow have nothing to do with ethics or morals or who’s more virtuous than the other guy. I’m talking about what works.
With those in mind—and please do keep them in mind—we can proceed to the central principle of effective magical combat in the political sphere:
You win a magical struggle by formulating an ideal as strongly, precisely, and vividly as possible, while completely ignoring the other guy.
Did you keep my two warnings in mind? To judge from my repeated experience, the moment they read those words, one subset of my readers immediately tried to apply it to military and political strategy, probably having to do with the Nazis. The Nazis exert a weird gravitational attraction on people’s imaginations, which we’re probably going to have to discuss one of these days; it’s always the Nazis this, and the Nazis that, and Churchill et al. couldn’t have stopped the Nazis if they’d just formulated an ideal, blah blah blah. Another subset of my readers immediately thought, okay, yes, that’s very sweet and moral and pure, but in the real world we have to be practical and get to work trashing the other side. If you thought one of these things, dear reader, please go back and reread the two warnings above, and this time pay attention.
How do you win by formulating an ideal as strongly, precisely, and vividly as possible? It’s quite simple. Magic can’t win a political or military struggle all by itself. What it can do is give a good hard boost to the more practical side of the struggle. It does this by generating energy, enthusiasm, loyalty, and love among your side’s supporters, by attracting allies rather than making enemies, and by making people on the other side start to wonder if maybe your side has a point. By doing that, magic can quite readily provide the edge that makes victory happen.
As it happens, the Nazis make a great example for our purposes, because they were heavily into the notion that the rules of magic also applied to the material world, and they were just as heavily into the notion that flinging high-intensity nastiness at their enemies was their ticket to victory. Adolf Hitler set the tone of the Nazi movement in his book Mein Kampf, which spends page after dreary page ranting about hatred as a source of power. That’s why he launched an invasion of Russia without issuing winter uniforms to the Wehrmacht: he hated and despised mere Russians so much he didn’t believe they could resist his magic and his armies long enough to make that an issue. We all know how that worked out.
On the other side of the struggle was English occultist Violet Firth Evans aka Dion Fortune, who put together a network of British magical practitioners to mess with the Nazis. One of the things that made the Wehrmacht so successful at first was that the leadership of the nations it invaded tended to suffer a sudden collapse in morale. (Read a good account of the fall of France in 1940 and you’ll get to see this in eerie detail.) Fortune, who recognized the role of magic in causing that collapse, set out to monkeywrench that process and keep Britain from suffering the same fate. She firmly rejected the notion that they should attack the Nazis with magic; instead, her network ignored the Nazis and concentrated on formulating an ideal as strongly, precisely, and vividly as possible. Again, we all know how that worked out. (You can find the details of her method in The Magical Battle of Britain, edited by Gareth Knight.)
The same principle applies to any magical struggle involving groups of people. Say you support a party and you want to encourage other people to do so. Obviously that’s going to take activity on the material plane, which follows its own rules—see Warning No. 1—but it also has a magical dimension. If you want other people to flock to your party, you need to formulate an ideal and make it as strong, precise, and vivid as you can. That will catch people’s attention, inspire them, and encourage them to listen to your party’s speakers and vote for its candidates.
Those words “strong, precise, and vivid” are the key to the process, by the way. It emphatically will not work to focus all your attention on a vague buzzword—“justice,” say, or “freedom.” Those are neither strong, nor precise, nor vivid. You need to formulate exactly what you mean by the concept: justice for whom, at whose expense? Freedom for whom, at whose expense? (If your answer is “for everyone, at no one’s expense,” you’re still in vague buzzword territory.) You need to know exactly what you’re trying to achieve, what it will cost, and who will pay the price for it, or you will not achieve it.
Nor is it enough to leave that knowledge in abstract terms. In magic, an image is worth a thousand vague words; a concrete thought form, to use the technical term, is necessary to provide the energies a pattern around which to coalesce. What do you want your party to achieve? What do you want your country to become? To practice effective political magic, you need to be able to give that answer in terms of vivid imaginative experiences. When you walk down the street in the future you want to achieve, what does it look like, sound like, smell like? When you happen to see your future mayor or president at work, what exactly are they doing? And—ahem—is the image something that will attract the enthusiasm and idealism of a lot of people, or just of your little special interest group? All of these are points you need to reflect on while building the ideal into which you’re going to pour your will, your imagination, and your emotional energy.
What if you don’t want to do any of that, and spend your time instead focusing on how evilly evil the other party and its candidates are, and flinging nasty magic at them? To begin with, malefic political magic is among the most difficult tasks a mage can face. If you’re trying to mess with someone else by magic, you have to overcome the momentum of their own convictions and emotional energy, plus whatever magic they’re using to protect themselves. If they lack conviction and don’t have a clue about magical protection, you might be able to do it — the Nazis did, with quite some success, before Dion Fortune et al. figured out how to monkeywrench them. But it’s far from easy, and even a modest amount of magical skill on the part of your opponents will trip you up hard.
But there’s another aspect to malefic political magic that tends to get missed. Note that in the principle I gave above, the word “appealing” is nowhere to be seen. The ideal you formulate need not be appealing to you. It can be utterly loathsome to you. So long as you formulate it as strongly, precisely, and vividly as you can, you give strength to that ideal, and encourage other people to flock to it. If there are a lot of people who find that image appealing, even if you loathe it, they won’t.
Yes, I could talk about the Nazis again, but let’s cut to the chase and focus on the obvious current example: Donald Trump. The main reason he was able to come charging out of the political fringes to seize the Republican nomination, and then the White House, and the main reason he still dominates the American political landscape, was that so many people threw so much energy into hating him. They formulated a good clear image, all right, and they did it strongly, precisely, and vividly, charging it with every ounce of hatred and rage they had. That was an extraordinarily potent spell. Unfortunately for them, it had the opposite of the effect they wanted.
Of course Trump also had the help of some spectacularly inept symbolism on the part of his enemies. I think most people know about the candid conversation when, talking about women, he spoke of “grabbing them by the pussies.” Countless people who hated him went right out and got hats shaped like female genitalia, and paraded around wearing those—and Trump promptly grabbed them by the pussy hats. Eight years after his emergence on the political scene, he still retains a firm grip on their brains. I doubt he’ll ever bother to let go.
He also had the help of a habit of modern Western cultures which I’ve termed the tyranny of mandatory niceness. In the upper reaches of our societies, expressing negative emotions is taboo, and will get you the same kind of reaction that expressing sexual desire would have gotten you in Victorian England. As a result, there are a great many people seething with negative emotions who desperately want some way to vent them—some excuse to shriek their hatred and rage right out there in public. Donald Trump provided them with that service. In effect, they thanked him for it by pouring emotional energy into his image, and he proceeded to make good use of it.
The point to keep in mind is that fixations of this sort have practical consequences. The real story of the populist counterrevolution in today’s America has nothing to do with Trump. It’s taking place in state and local politics, as legislatures and school boards swing toward the right one after another. I’ve seen articles by thoughtful liberal writers who are practically in a panic over this, but they get no traction, because so many people can think only of Trump. For that matter, if something keeps Trump from winning the GOP nomination this year, the Democrats will be caught flatfooted—and of course, and crucially, they have yet to formulate an ideal of their own that can catch the imagination, the aspirations, and the hopes of the voters.
Old-fashioned occultists like me are wearily familiar with this effect. When we teach magic, we’re constantly having to remind people to focus on the thing they want, not the thing they hate or fear or want to get rid of. Of course there’s a reason for that, which is that so few people figure out what they actually want. Nearly always, people want to think instead, “If only X happens”—and X, of course, can be anything from winning the lottery or losing twenty pounds to marrying the right person or divorcing the wrong one—“my life will be wonderful.” Then they spend all their time thinking about the money or the spouse they don’t have, or the weight or the spouse that they do, and fail to focus their will and imagination on exactly what kind of changes they want in their lives. In this way they cement themselves even further into their current misery.
As in the personal microcosm, so in the political mesocosm. For the last half century or so, the main US political parties have spent all their time and energy ranting about the bad things that the bad people in the other party are doing, or have done, or are going to do, and neglected to offer any positive vision of their own. There are unpleasant reasons for that habit. Until the rise of the populist movement, both parties were pushing the same set of policies on most issues, while cultivating a handful of hot button issues to keep their captive constituencies in line. Avoiding a positive vision was essential to that approach.
Democrats loved to preen themselves on their environmentalism, though somehow they never did much to benefit the environment. Republicans loved to preen themselves on their support for Christian morality, though somehow they never did much to further that cause, either. For both parties, these and other niche issues allowed them to pretend to be idealistic and wave around virtue signals to distract their constituencies from the fact that much more important issues were being ignored. Meanwhile the politicians of both parties pandered to big corporations, fell neatly in line behind one clueless imperial misadventure after another, and lined their own pockets in a frenzy of kleptocratic greed that left Third World tyrants looking on in jealous awe. Holding up an ideal that meant anything to most Americans would have been a major misstep for either party, as the gap between even the most modest ideal and the sleazy realities of life among Washington DC’s political parasites would have quickly become a severe liability for all sides.
Yet the absence of any such ideal goes a very long way to explain the spreading cynicism and contempt that so many Americans feel for the people that govern them, and it also goes at least as far to explain their willingness to turn to political outsiders such as Trump. To judge from the evidence of history, that’s just going to accelerate until somebody formulates a positive and appealing ideal strongly, precisely, and vividly enough to seize the collective imagination of the American public. That could be done by a politician, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be done by an ordinary person, alone or working with others, who takes the principles of successful magic seriously and makes a sustained effort to create an ideal that will appeal to most people.
It could be you, dear reader. As the political machinery of our failing republic clanks and lumbers deeper into what could become its terminal crisis, you might want to consider it.