It is well-known that minister for propaganda Josef Goebbels used lines from the sixteenth century Propheties of Michel de Notre Dame (Nostradamus) to bolster Nazi belief in a coming victory; also that the British reciprocated by plucking their own prophetic writings out of the air. The game of using any suitably elastic corpus of words, phrases or images in order to organize a field of emotional investments is as old as time.
Narrativisation of the prospective — the disciplining of futurity — is one of the most basic responses to the anxious awareness of onrushing time. The literature of art history is brimming with contesting periodisations: different ways in which documented history can be separated into qualitatively different times, be it organised by influences, schools and styles, social and cultural changes, or by the brute intercession of the calendar itself.
Not every approach to periodisation leads to a rationalisation or ‘patterning’ of history, and in the case of art history very rarely — if ever — to an act of prognostication; however there have always been those who sought to account for and dramatise historical sequences within some larger overarching narrative, which is a practice that always bears a trace of the divinatory. Social vectors or tendencies cannot be studied without also being assumed to exist on some level. Any account of historical change is also in this respect theory-laden.
The essence of patterning is repetition. Even in the case of non-periodic patterns such as Penrose tiling, the aperiodicity of the growing whole is strictly reliant on the consistent repetition of the base element’s regularity: the tiles themselves.
Any attempt to periodise history, and especially any attempt to see some kind of cyclicity to it, is akin to an attempt to make music out of it. This is because the essence of music, again, is repetition. A clap, a fingersnap, a yell, a bell’s tinkle: each of these taken alone as an isolated event constitute nothing only a noise. But introduce some kind of repetition, and then there can exist something like a rudimentary pulse, frequency or rhythm; then there can exist something minimally musical: pitch is born, a beat is born. Starting with nothing other than a random noise, the empty gesture of repetition introduces an aesthetic dimension: a dimension that calls attention not to the noise itself but to the taking-place, or event-hood, of that noise. And while a random noise can startle, only a musical note or pulse can properly interpellate. Music addresses itself to the listener in a way that an isolated sound does not: it hails you.
This then is one of the dangers in periodising history. In fitting it into a pattern, a historian makes some minimal meaningfulness out of it which, read too enthusiastically, can figure as a Big Other or guarantee of order. Individuals studying and watching the patterns generated by their approaches to history can easily come to feel that there is something there to understand, and, in particular, that they understand it. Those who can claim to hear the ‘music of the spheres’, the soundtrack to creation, the pulse or beat of history are precisely those who feel themselves called or in some sense interpellated to it, and who can act on its behalf, as heralds, harbingers, representative and even executives for a certain ‘natural destiny’. This represents something of a logical paradox: history is history precisely because it is not natural; to claim that history has a certain necessary shape is to claim that history is not history, and indeed loses the distinction altogether.
Bearing all this in mind, the political figure of Stephen K. Bannon troubles me deeply, indeed more even than president Trump. By actively rallying right-wing populists and European leaders to economic nationalism (or if you prefer, protectionist nativism), his international muscularity poses a real threat to what remains of democracy. This is all the more so given the kind of leaders that presently exist in Italy and Hungary.
For all his self-assumed pantomime pomp and theatrical sophistry over the libidinal allure of the dark side (‘Darth Vader, Dick Chaney, Satan… that’s power’), there is something vaguely porcine and pathetic about Steve Bannon. It would not be too difficult to imagine that in a political satire, he would be represented by a grizzled warthog. Which is, I guess, a roundabout way to summarize him as Old King Gammon.
Bannon is the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, the website that he named ‘the platform of the alt-right’. Breitbart has indeed proved a go-to source for assaults upon the left, publishing articles during Bannon’s tenure such as ‘Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?’ and ‘Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture’.
Above and beyond all this, however, Bannon is a staunch believer in the periodising of history. His favourite source is the book The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. In this book, authors Neil Howe and William Strauss elaborate on an idea of destiny in which successive generations serve a small number of fundamental functions: Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist. If these sound almost like class types in an MMORPG character selection screen, I’m sure that the resonance is not entirely artificial. The four ‘generational archetypes’ correspond to a similarly fourfold teleology of history: a sequence of four cycles or ‘turnings’ (‘The High’, ‘Awakening’, ‘Unraveling’ and ‘The Crisis’). Howe and Strauss do their best, sans any apparent sociological clout, to crowbar several historical sequences into this pattern but their attempt remains at best academically dubious and extremely ethnocentric.
It is no surprise that Bannon’s enduring interest in Howe and Strauss’s wild dramatisation of American history centres on the idea of the titular Fourth Turning, the crisis years of conflagration and renewal. All ultra-conservatives and enemies of democracy, in and out of literature, from DC’s Ra’s al Ghul to real groups such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, have shared a similar belief in periodically razing and burning society in order to give rise to a mythical, scintillating order. Indeed, political theorist and professor Roger Griffin identified an ideology of palingenetic ultra-nationalism as a core defining feature of fascism. The glorious rebirth of the ethnostate, burning away years of immigration and cultural cross-fertilisation, is almost certainly part of Bannon’s key fantasy, and this is why I would claim that it cannot be far off the mark to classify him as a fascist.
The danger, as always when dealing with an alt-right that has risen in dominance on the back of a wave of ironic meme-creators and shitposting chan culture, is to draw a line between those who were openly and publicly aligned with their remarks and those anonymous talking heads who sweated feverishly at the thought of being doxxed. For example, there was always a difference between the alt-right and what Angela Nagle (in her book Kill All Normies) dubbed the alt-light. While the former would have no issue marching with, and becoming, dyed-in-the-wool white nationalists, the latter were composed largely of an anonymous and purposefully nihilistic libertarian crowd who while facilitating the rise of the alt-right and gleefully borrowing its symbols, misogyny, racism and transphobia for its own amusement, had no stomach for commitment to any kind of ideological programme (other than Kek — but entertainment is always politically under-theorised as a category of motivated experience).
What gamergaters, Breitbart, /pol/ and /b/ chan culture, Reddit’s /The_Donald/, Infowars, MRAs, and various loud individuals such as the prurient anti-academic altar-boy Milo Yiannopoulos provided was perfect cover for those who were being neither nihilistic nor ironic. Thus, within such online communities someone who identified as a white nationalist anti-feminist purely because it was ‘transgressive’, ‘edgy’ and broke taboos for cheap reactions, could be keeping company with others who were indeed politically committed to a far right agenda. For a time it seemed as if the whole internet colluded; that there was a concerted effort to make of all spaces of interaction (such as comment sections) a hostile environment for anyone with leftist principles. Down-voters swarmed at the least sign of ‘political correctness’, personal insults, racist and misogynist slurs racked up and vulnerabilities repeatedly kicked (this was before the introduction of better moderation). But, despite the appearance of a single, unified body of actors, this swarm behaviour was always stratified. At the one extreme you might find simple anonymised trolls role-playing to get a reaction, and at the other there would be Stormfront members. Somewhere in-between nestled LARPers like Milo, committed enough to assume the position of a rattled contrarian in person, but for all that still veiled by a sense of confection, a somewhat pained playfulness that ultimately bows to ignorance and political confusion. Steve Bannon, like many of the alt-right, has been able to exploit such ambiguities. Bannon, while every bit hamming it up as the pantomime moustache-twirling villain in his media appearances and endorsements, really is a villain and really endorses what he says.
As Maajid Nawaz at LBC has said, Bannon should leave us in no doubt that he intends to act as if he were at war. As a subscriber to the Strauss–Howe generational theory and an enthusiastic reader of traditionalist and right-wing theosophist Julius Evola, it is clear that Bannon does not merely suffer from some misplaced sense of grandeur, but far more than this considers himself a uniquely gifted interpreter of history ideally placed to usher in the reign of a dark spiritualistic synarchy. It is to this end that he is touring the world and shaking hands with all the isolationists he can find; not to merely oppose the internationalist, cosmopolitan ‘liberal elites’ that cause him to foam at the mouth between interviews, but to form alliances wherever possible between his brand of right-wing populism and any local variations on the fascist theme. While an international federation of economic isolationists might sound something of an oxymoron, it’s clear that the purpose will ultimately be to dominate it. He’s already met with right wing architects of Brexit in and out of the UK government; he’s thrown his weight (and no doubt considerable resources) behind the right-wing cause of white nationalist and professional Islamophobe Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) — a process in which the UK media have been disgustingly complicit.
Maybe it’s not the orange idiot in the White House that we on the left should be worrying most about, but the adventures of this committed demagogue.