This article represents the views of its author, E.G, not necessarily those of the C.C.S.
Published: October 2012

New Age spirituality: a study in commodity fetishism

Marxists do not, perhaps, always spend enough time browsing in the ‘Mind, Body, and Spirit’ sections of chain bookshops. And it’s a shame that they don’t: because quite a lot of other people evidently do. An ideology that we can loosely term ‘New Age spirituality’ now enjoys wide public interest and some influence (especially in petit-bourgeois radical circles); it contains clear elements of dissatisfaction with the capitalist status quo, however ineffectually that might be formulated; but Marxists know very little about it. A first acquaintance with the ‘Mind, Body, and Spirit’ section, however, is quite likely to be discouraging. New Age literature presents the initial impression of an unmotivated chaos of different ideological and mythological fragments, ranging from the lost city of Atlantis (known at least since the time of Plato) to flying saucers (first reported in 1947). There is no particular obligatory doctrine to which adherents are required to subscribe: one may choose to believe in crystals, or homoeopathy, or dreamcatchers, or leys, or fêng shui, or all of them, but one is not compelled to believe in any specific point.

And this doctrinal indeterminacy of the New Age cannot be regarded as accidental. Practitioners of New Age spirituality would, presumably, be quite capable of formulating creeds and enumerating noble truths if they felt any great need to do so: but they do not. And, when they disagree about some particular point, they would presumably be quite capable of indulging in vicious and intemperate polemic about it: but, somewhat to the bewilderment of the watching Marxist, they do not do so. People who believe in the healing power of crystals, say, might be expected to have no more time for homoeopathy than they do for scientific medicine; but in fact the literature tends to be eirenic and eclectic in its approach, and overt factionalism is rare. This reflects the fact that people interested in New Age ideas are usually less concerned with the correctness of any particular idea than they are with the conviction that official, mainstream science is wrong (or, at the very least, one-sided). The literature is overflowing with resentment at a scientific consensus that is felt to be monolithic, oppressive, dull, and inhumane: and its readers will welcome almost any ‘alternative’ that promises to punch a hole in the complacency of official knowledge.

It will be clear that this represents a misapprehension of how science works. Any hope of damaging science by accumulating awkward facts is doomed to disappointment: particular theories could conceivably be overturned, but the result would always be more science rather than less. And it is equally clear that the rejection of scientific rationalism is self-defeating: by surrendering the ground of reason to its opponents, the New Age condemns itself to the role of ‘the heart of a heartless world’. But we should also recognize that this attitude embodies a protest against the way science is deployed as a bulwark of the capitalist order. Many New Age writers, indeed, openly profess an opposition to capitalism (although it is not always clear what they mean by it); most appeal to a sense that modern society is too impersonal, too inhuman. But the New Age’s attempt to oppose aspects of capitalism is continually vitiated by its inability to escape from the gravitational attraction of bourgeois society and its ideology.

The content of New Age beliefs and practices is drawn, wherever possible, from sources outside the cultural mainstream of the contemporary West (Amerindian, Celtic, Mesolithic, shamanic, indeterminately ‘Eastern’). This correlates clearly with its predominantly liberal-left political orientation. It is, indeed, a general rule of thumb that attempts to revive ancient or defunct religions in an imperialist society will align to the right or the far right when they associate themselves with the traditions of the dominant or majority nationality, while they will tend to be liberal or liberal-left when they associate themselves with those of oppressed or minority peoples. Thus, the Germanic neo-paganism that was cultivated among some forerunners of Nazism belonged to the far right; while the New Age in the U.S.A., which seeks to associate itself with Amerindian traditions, is predominantly liberal-left in outlook. People in Britain who go to Stonehenge to carry out vaguely Celtic or purportedly druidical ceremonies are, in the main, politically innocuous: if they went there to worship Woden and Thunor and the tribal gods of the Angelcynn, they would probably be less so.

The New Age’s acceptance of elements from minority and ‘indigenous’ cultures takes place, however, within a colonialist framework whose essential structure is not challenged. For the New Age, modernity and science and reason are still the unique prerogative of the bourgeois West; the rest of the world is still the realm of ‘spirituality’ (or ‘superstition’) and ‘timelessness’ (or ‘backwardness’). Only the valuation has changed: the ideological opposition between ‘the West’ and ‘the primitives’ remains firmly established, and the real historical relations of which that ideology is a distorted reflection remain unperceived.

And this is symptomatic of a wider failure to break out of the essential categories of bourgeois life and thought. Despite its critical stance towards aspects of modern existence, indeed, the New Age is arguably a more purely bourgeois and capitalistic form of spirituality than are the organized religions (which have their roots in the feudal past). The renunciation of fixed doctrine opens the way to a spiritual life mediated entirely through free contract and commodity exchange: New Age believers are not expected to accept the quasi-feudal patronage of any clerical system, but instead they are encouraged to keep buying an unending stream of spiritual knickknacks. The New Age vaults the barrier of scientific rationalism: and the bourgeois market is there already. It flees modern society for a fantasy: and the categories of late capitalism pursue it even in dreamland. With its indeterminacy over ‘faith and morals’ and its abiding passion for curios, the New Age ends up transmuting its adherents’ niggling dissatisfaction with capitalism into an infinitely commodified, infinitely reified spiritual expression. Quite literally, it is a marketplace; quite literally, it turns commodities into fetishes. New Age spirituality offers no real way out. Once you have bought your dreamcatcher and your crystals, once you have paid your psychic and your fêng shui consultant, once you have topped up your supplies of essential oils and homoeopathic tablets, you are back where you started: trapped in intense, quasi-personal relationships with a vast agglomeration of commodities.



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