Gnosis, Politics, and the Inevitability of Dystopia

Recent events in the USA have some celebrating the power of government institutions to enact progress upon society from above, and others decrying the very same activities as a form of tyranny. This statement doesn’t date this article, given that the only part of the narrative which ever changes is the side which is decrying and the side which is celebrating. With the possible exception of anarchists, everybody loves government when it is enforcing what they want it to and hates government when it is enforcing what they do not want it to. Certainly, many Libertarians, Republicans, and their cognates in other countries will use rhetoric about small government, but that’s really just quantitative phrasing for “government that does what I want it to and doesn’t do what I don’t want it to”.

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Even given the hyperbole natural to discussions and arguments within this environment, I feel fairly comfortable in saying that today we live in what a fiction writer might call a cyberpunk dystopia. That isn’t to say that nothing is going well (as we usually expect from a dystopia), nor that we suffer under an absolute tyranny. But it does not take much research to realize that large corporations and other massive business interests have quite rapidly risen up and taken control of the global economy and, by extension, politics on both large and small scales.

Communication and information technology has become a greater and greater part of all our lives, often to the point of absurdity and pathology. Turn the gaze around, however, and you have a “religion of the Singularity” declaring that we are rapidly nearing the birth of fully-fledged artificial intelligences of god-like power, a post-scarcity economy like that of Star Trek, and a system of governance—believed to be an inevitable outgrowth from these developments—which will allow everybody to pursue whatever interests they may have without practical barriers. In short, to such a person we are heading toward Utopia, but not only do I think their Utopia improbable, I do not even think that it could be any better than a Brave New World style of dystopia.

That’s the funny thing about economic and political systems: you can’t ever make everybody happy, no matter how “perfect” you can get everything to look. Many of the “hostile aliens” in Star Trek weren’t opposing a happy Utopia, but what they saw as a threatening dystopia attempting to assimilate all worlds; the Federation—as many see the USA, the UN, and the European Union in the real world of today, and as former colonies see the British Empire, the Dutch, and other Western European powers of days past—is just the flesh-and-blood Borg in the eyes of their own opponents. To switch up sci-fi franchises, sure the Empire is oppressive and murderous, but at least it “keeps the trains running on time.” Many mystics and occultists have looked at this formula and thought well of either fascism or Communism, preferring a totalitarianism built upon noble values to a dubious freedom which leads inexorably to spiritual decay.

But why bother with government at all? If economic systems and structures of power can’t solve our problems in a way that we all recognize, and if we all spend much of our time being stymied and annoyed by bureaucracy, while many spend theirs being systematically bullied or oppressed by impersonal systems and power-hungry buy-ins, why even have those institutions? Many modern day mystics and occultists ask this question openly and end up siding with some form of Libertarianism or anarchism. At least this way, they reason, there is a chance of eking out a portion of real freedom in pursuing the Great Work.

The impartial observation of history seems to be that government of some sort is inevitable. Humans, being social animals by biological nature, simply cannot go without it. As soon as we congregate in any number above one, we have no choice but to engage in a power structure of some sort. The larger that congregation becomes, the more we must think out and intentionally design or modify those structures. There is the equally inevitable balancing act between resource efficiency and real capacity, all the while trying to manage shifting ideals and values within structures slow to respond out of the brutal necessity of trying to avoid the abuse of whims; but these structures must be able to respond within a human lifetime or else all will fall victim to a different sort of abuse coming from those entrusted with the power to manipulate the systems ostensibly for the benefit of society and its members.

Many mystics throughout time have given their visions for a Utopia founded on esoteric practices and ideals. There appear to be two broad models for such a social system: the ancient one in which a society is established as an engine of moral, intellectual, and spiritual enlightenment (as in Plato’s Republic or Tripura Rahasya), and the modern or post-modern wish for a society composed entirely of the enlightened (as, for example, much of the New Age and “occult revival” movements). Though neither one seems, in practice, to be especially workable as far as their ideal forms are concerned, the latter is nothing other than wishful thinking. At least Plato and the Indian sages knew that you can’t start by assuming the goal’s completion. They instead began with the goal in mind and worked backward from it to see what a society might look like which could lead a citizen to that goal.

An interesting point of departure between these two approaches is that while both (almost always) assume the fact of reincarnation, only the ancient philosophers and sages recognized that reincarnation is itself part of a greater engine of enlightenment which they then hoped to emulate on a human scale within their social structures. In the New Age and occult worlds of today, reincarnation is a pleasant notion, especially when we can undergo hypnosis or crystal readings to determine “who we were in a past life”. For the Hindu, Buddhist, or Platonist, this is not a piece of information worth pursuing, and reincarnation is not any more pleasant a notion than the inevitability of having one’s skull cracked open upon falling over a cliff. To them, the ideal society is one which serves as a school for souls working to escape their merely human fetters, and not a safe haven for those who want no more than comfort and pleasure.

Whether reincarnation is taken as literal fact or as a figurative illustration of the process of leaving behind past errors is immaterial. What is most important is the recognition that—again, unlike in the New Age ideal—progress is always and only of the individual, and cannot occur to the populace as a whole. The law of the land exists, again ideally, not to make everybody perfect by force, because that cannot happen; such a law exists to make space for those who are working actively upon their own perfection and for no other reason. This is a true dystopia for those who want only for wealth, power, or pleasure, no matter how they dress those goals up.

Though based in a more rigorous spirituality and more realistic observations of humanity, the ancient model of philosopher-king is no more genuinely workable than the New Age pipe-dream of a civilization by, for, and of an enlightened majority. But it can provide us with a personal model of some utility. No less a personage than Manu, author of the famous Manusmṛti, instructs us that a good king can make a Golden Age of his kingdom though the whole world be in a Dark Age, and the Tamil classic Tirukkural makes clear that what makes a good king is not different from what makes a good human being. Though a decent society must exist without, if a Utopia can exist at all, it can only exist within the life and soul of an individual.

There is not, and can never be, a perfect government, but only a variety of attempts at approaching justice based on a particular balance of values. But there can’t be “no government”, because even where government is intentionally ignored or abolished, even the most idealistic will fall into socio-political patterns of some sort by virtue of necessity.

Dystopia is unavoidable, even if only minorities within the society would call it that. In general, it is those shushed minorities or the disenfranchised who experience the dystopian side of the coin who must be listened to most closely is misery is to be minimized. Make no mistake: dystopia can be mitigated, but it cannot be abolished. For as necessary as it is, a system of governance can only force change on the surface. It is up to each of us, individually, to go within and experience heaven, to then share our piece of it. Utopia really is no place at all.

purnacandra-sivarupaPurnacandra Sivarupa is a Western-born Saiva Tantrika and freelance arcanist. He can be found at inpeaceprofound.com where he shares more writing on esoteric and occult topics.