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Cultic milieus and the extreme right

As a concept for framing how elements of the extreme right give their activism a sense of profound significance, the cultic remains useful and relevant.

Paul Jackson
9 May 2019

The Christchurch attacker dipped into the cultic milieu by adopting the Black Sun symbol on the cover of his manifesto. So did the terrorist who killed Jo Cox MP, as he read publications with titles such as Secret of the Runes, and kept a bag of runes in a string bag. How should we think about the extreme right’s fascination with the cultic?

The cultic milieu concept has been used by a range of academics interested in the extreme right. It has often been taken up by those analysts of the extreme right who are particularly concerned with examining the ways some individuals and groups invoke a sense of the spiritual, making claims that their activism is related to something ‘higher’, and so in part at least about finding answers to larger questions of life and existence.

The term was coined by Colin Campbell in 1972, in an article called ‘The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularisation’ – though here Campbell was not really concerned with using it to study phenomena such as neo-Nazism. Its development by scholars interested in the study of the extreme right was given a boost in 2002 with the book edited by Jeffrey Kaplan and Heléne Lööw , The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalization. As well as reprinting the original essay, chapters looked at phenomena such as US white supremacism through the lens of the cultic milieu, and helped introduce the term to a new audience, especially those concerned with the history and dynamics of the extreme right. Others concerned with American extremism and conspiracy theories, such as Michel Barkun, have similarly helped to inspire others who have used the cultic milieu concept to study the extreme right.

For his part, Campbell stumbled on the term when he was trying to conceptualise the idea of a ‘cult’, which for him was neither an established religion nor a sect that had broken away from more established religious practices. Rather, the cult was something that Campbell saw arising in more spontaneous ways. As their individual trajectories are often varied and nebulous, this made it difficult to define exactly what a cult was. Cults were also often transitory and it was often unclear who were members, how they were structured, or even exactly when they started and ended.

Yet Campbell also observed that individual cults seemed to be formed from a much broader, more heterogeneous culture steeped in competing ideas oppositional to mainstream ideas and practices. It was from this wider, radical and subversive world, a heterogeneous, dissenting space, that those wanting to create cults could find the raw resources to construct all manner of alternate belief systems. The cultic dynamics of this milieu seemed important to understand, and so rather than study a specific case, Campbell’s focus on what he dubbed the cultic milieu argued it was important to explore the more long-lasting, underlying counter culture that allowed people to generate specific cults at any given time.

The cultic milieu concept was coined to focus attention on this wider oppositional world, a space fizzing with a myriad beliefs and ideas that were contrary to, and highly critical of, mainstream society. The cultic milieu was the ‘cultural underground’ of society, as Campbell put it, and might include ecological activism, new age ideals drawn from eastern mysticism, or even belief in UFOs.

Heterogeneity and syncretism marked this cultic milieu, but so did the quest for spiritual satisfaction in the face of a secularising society. A committed Weberian, for Campbell the mood of ‘seekership’, or the search for a more satisfying religious experience, found among those drawn to the cultic milieu, indicated that its adherents were people responding to the disenchantment of the world. For Campbell adherence to cultic views was not necessarily to be disparaged, and his work highlighted the attractions of a cultic milieu that offered the promise of re-enchantment in a secularised world.

Campbell’s commitment to the concept has been interesting to plot. While seemingly enjoying the long life secured for his term, he has been critical of some of its wider applications. In 2012 he even gave a lecture at the University of Leipzig where he seemed to reject the value of the cultic milieu for studying the extreme right.

Extreme right groups that were deviant from the mainstream, as well as marginalised and willing to break the law, he stressed, were not doing enough to be qualify for the cultic milieu. They just offered people a radical politics. Scholars responding to Kaplan and Lööw’s work had, perhaps, gone too far in applying it uncritically to phenomena such as US white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Campbell even concluded that, in a hyper-globalised world where notions of both ‘the mainstream’, and therefore what really constitutes ‘deviancy’ from it, have become far too problematic to pin down, the concept was now redundant.

Too dismissive

Campbell’s recent self-criticism highlights the limits to the concept, but I for one think he has been too dismissive of its ongoing, heuristic value. Certainly, he is right that not all forms of extreme right activity are ‘cultic’, not all offer a sense of the ‘higher’ calling. However, many aspects of neo-Nazi and white supremacist cultures have been, and continue to be, interested in ideas that are not only esoteric but also promise some sense of radically alternate spiritual enlightenment.

To give a recent example, the US group Atomwaffen Division has developed an interest with a neo-Nazi form of Satanism called The Order of the Nine Angels, which also includes Holocaust denial as part of a wider conspiratorial worldview. This is just the most recent example of US groups tapping into neo-Nazi forms of the cultic milieu.

To give another, evocative example, William Pierce, founder of the National Alliance and doyen of American neo-Nazism from the 1970s to the early 2000s, developed an alternate faith he called Cosmotheism, explained in a series of essays still available from the website of the National Alliance, which sought to offer people ‘a New Consciousness’. Part of the lived experience of being a committed white supremacist, for Pierce, was to develop a more profound understanding of one’s place within the cosmos, while rejecting the worldview of Judeo-Christianity. Other phenomena from US activists in the postwar period, from Christian Identity to David Lane’s Wotanism, also combine extreme politics with a sense of the higher calling, though in markedly different ways.

Going back further, interest in the esoteric and the spiritual can also be found in the early origins of Nazism. Again, care should be taken not to exaggerate the impact of this on what later became the Nazi movement. Nevertheless, we note that groups such as the Thule Society, which formed part of the cultic milieu to be found in Germany after the First World War, certainly played a part in creating the Nazi Weltanschauung. This is a dynamic explored in, among other works, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s fascinating study The Occult Roots of Nazism.

However, the cultic milieu concept is more typically used for exploring marginalised forms of fascism and extreme right cultures that have emerged after 1945, and has great relevance for assessing the many groups who only ever operate on the fringes of society. Goodrick-Clarke has examined some of the diversity of postwar fascisms in books such as Black Sun, though he does not use the term cultic milieu directly. Meanwhile, Roger Griffin has used it to help conceptualise the many and diverse forms of neo-fascism that have developed since 1945. In a more focused study, Graham Macklin has used it to help frame analysis of the British extreme right network, the London Forum, which promotes the ideas of a wide range of ideologues, conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers. I have also used it to consider neo-Nazi conspiracy theories, networks such as the World Union of National Socialists, and committed lifelong yet marginal neo-Nazis such as Colin Jordan.

Cultural underground

As a concept for framing how elements of the extreme right draw on a wide range of ideas that offer a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, to give their activism a sense of profound significance, the cultic remains useful and relevant – even if here it has taken on a new life, one that is perhaps distinct from Campbell’s original usage. The cultic milieu concept is important as it makes us consider how a wide sphere of extreme right cultural production, now widely available online, creates a ‘cultural underground’.

So, while individual cultic groups – extreme right or otherwise – may come and go, Campbell’s focus on studying the milieu that allows them to emerge chimes with the push to analyse the ways the extreme right is so often set up across a range of groups and organisations, many of which are transitory. Echoing the seekers described in Campbell’s original essay, individuals drawn to the extreme right may flit between such groups, experimenting with a variety of seemingly incompatible ideas, as they search for something to believe in.

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