The Secular King: Power, Mana, and Unfreedom

Who has the power to mystify, how did he get it, and how does he keep it? Ernst Becker first analyzed it in book Escape from Evil:

“Seen in this way, social life is the saga of the working out of one’s problems and ambitions on others. What else could it be, what else are human objects for? I think it is along lines such as these that we would find the psychological dynamics for a sophisticated Marxist philosophy of history; it would be based on power, but it would include individual deviance and interpersonal psychology, and it would reflect a “social contract” forged in desire and fear. The central question of such a sophisticated Marxist philosophy of history would be, Who has the power to mystify, how did he get it, and how does he keep it?”

—Ernst Becker, Escape from Evil (49)

When one studies a tyrant whether fascist, nazi, or populist – as in our time, one wonders how these otherwise ordinary and grotesque creatures whose psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies are obvious, and yet they have that power to mystify their followers, con them into doing their bidding through stagecraft, political mystery religion (i.e., think of Hitler’s use of film, grand extravaganzas with ritualized and coded dress, style, and flamboyant flags, parades, banners, icons, etc.), propaganda, fear, seduction, et. al… How did they get this power, and how did they keep it? Even today we see the irrational hold Trump has over his followers, and yet he is a buffoon, mountebank, and psychopathic and irascible a-moral creature whose sole intentions are through and through economic and social power and dominion.

Today we are agreed that the picture looks something like this: that once mankind got the means for large-scale manipulation of the world, the lust for power began to take devastating tolls. This can be seen strikingly at the rise of the great civilizations based on divine kingship. These new states were structures of domination which absorbed the tribal life around them and built-up empires. Masses of men were forged into obedient tools for really large-scale power operations directed by a powerful, exploitative class. It was at this time that slaves were firmly compartmentalized into various special skills which they plied monotonously; they became automaton objects of the tyrannical rulers.

For Becker the only answer possible for this era of tyranny is the psychoanalytic and Marxist thought of Freud and Marx: men are so eager to be mystified and deluded, so willing to be bound in chains and become automatons of the new leader, because of the notion Freud saw as the heart of human power: “the phenomenon of transference”. (50). As he puts it: “People take the overwhelmingness of creation and their own fears and desires and project them in the form of intense mana onto certain figures to which they then defer. … Men are literally hypnotized by life and by those who represent life to them…” (51). Think of the people of the heartland who for the past four decades have seen their world turned upside down, the slow demolition of the rust belt economy, the takeover of small farming by the large conglomerates, the end of the Mom and Pop stores, the degradation of small towns…. and, then they are presented with this notion of “America First, and Make America Great Again, on and on… all the lies and deceptions offered that for these people whose children and grandkids had turned to drugs because of lack of work, etc., these people who saw their moral order crushed, the whole mythic complex of evangelical Christianity with its apocalyptic nightmares and end game revelations, etc. These people fell for a lie… No matter that it was all a deadly game of make belief to begin with, that the world of monopoly capitalism had sold them down the river and was still doing it. Trump was smoke and mirrors, because he is the epitome of deception and the great con-game of capitalist piracy…

Even now as the Biden administration seeks to criminalize Trump and make him a political martyr in the eyes of Trump’s followers, we see the dynamic of mana and power play havoc in our world. Locking Trump up or penalizing him will only make things worse not better, for his followers have no hope or as Zizek puts it they have the “hope of the hopeless” – at least in their own eyes, and we have to see through their eyes to know and understand the predicament and crisis of our times. The irrationality of this belief system is as old as religion itself – and, it is a political religion we are seeing enacted in this world today. In these people’s minds it is the oldest of dualisms: the battle between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, etc. a horror shows more like watching a Stephen King novel… at least from their point of view.

One sees it in the various rhetoric of this convergence of Christian evangelism and politics in of Republican Rep. Marjorie Greene, a typical example of the very truth of the above. The insanity of her position to most of us who are secular atheists seems all to obvious, but to those who believe like her which is the majority of heartland constituents this is what they immerse themselves in every day. This is no joke. Having grown up and escaped such a worldview myself, realizing how deadly this ideology is I know firsthand the hate in these people’s hearts. Sadly. It took me years to overcome the burden of that Christian evangelical worldview and ideology and tell the truth one never does completely escape it… it haunts one’s own nightmares. Like anything else if you’ve been indoctrinated into a belief system from childhood you are imprinted with all of its mappings which are always there in the background, in the shadows of the psyche no matter what you affirm consciously and by way of Reason and Intelligence. The irrational is a power that is at the center of fear and belief, and no matter what one might say it is a very difficult thing to surmount.

As Becker asks: “What in men is it that fashions un­freedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation.” (53) Why do people give up their freedom for a notion of dignity and self-aggrandizement? Let’s face it some humans would rather live in fear of power than be free, freedom is for many more fearful than the known power of tyrants who promise unfounded dreams.

Here is Becker’s answer:

“We also saw that ritual was an enactment of the struggle between the forces of light and life and those of darkness and death. With the technique of ritual offerings man sought to bring the invisible powers of nature to bear on his visible well-being. Well, the divine king sums up this whole cosmology all in himself. He is the god who receives offerings, the protagonist of light against dark, and the embodiment of the invisible forces of nature-specifically, the sun. In Hocart’s happy phrase, he is the “Sun-Man.” Divine kingship sums up the double process of macro- and microcosmization : it represents a “solarization of man, and a humanizing of the sun.”(54).

In our time such secular notions seem ludicrous, but we’re not dealing with secularists but with fanaticism and Christian evangelicals who are irrational and allowing this ancient notion to become revitalized in their worldview: the need for the Sun Man, the Divine King, the Sovereign power in their midst to receive the mana and gifts from his followers. It’s all there… the need for a visible god – the god king in their midst who will provide the hopes and dreams of renewal, rebirth, and immortality. To a secular atheist this all seems mad, insane, psychotic… but to those who affirm the deep-seated religious cosmologies of the evangelicals this is truth. Such men as Trump and Desantis know very well this truth and how to use it and manipulate their constituents to do their bidding.

This sense of the “Divine Right of Kings” seems to be coming back in a twisted form in the modern age of late capitalist society. As Becker puts it somewhere along the way humanity lost this sense of the sacred economy and feel into this secular economy of life: “first, to say that man changed from a privileged sharer of goods to someone who was dependent on the redistribution of goods; and second, to say that he was gradually dispossessed of the most intimate creative role he had ever invented, that of a practitioner of ritual. (60-61) It comes down to this: “The great difference between our society and most non-European societies is that the national ritual, of which the Pope or the sovereign [president, chairman, prime minister, etc.] is the head, has swallowed up all others. Hence the clan and all other ritual organizations have disappeared. . . . The disappearance of the intermediate groupings has left the married couple face to face with the state.” (62). We live in a world devoid of sacred power, where the shadow of it falls on the secular leader who embodies the aspirations and dreams of those who are powerless in themselves to effect change, so they willingly give up their mana, gifts, power to the illusion of that ancient dream in hopes that it might rub off on them and renew their lives and the wasteland they perceive our modern world has become.

All human ideologies, then, are affairs that deal directly with the sacredness of the individual or the group life, whether it seems that way or not, whether they admit it or not, whether the person knows it himself or not. Becker (64)

Ever since the Enlightenment humans have fallen into a secular cosmos emptied of its gods and God. Nietzsche’s famous “God is Dead!” is the cry of this nihilistic universe devoid of the sacred, emptied of all value and meaning. We are alone, and we are afraid. And yet the shadow of the ancient world did not so easily vanish, and for all the talk of Reason and Light the shadow of the religious view continued on in the world in the twisted forms of Gothic horror, Decadence, and the Occult counter-worlds that still roam our secular wastelands. As Becker puts is ancient man lived in a sacred cosmos, we don’t. We’ve lost that sense of communal self-renewal and the sense of transcendence and rebirth of self and culture:

“This eternal cycle of rebirth was self-renewing if helped with the proper communal rituals. The group, then, guaranteed its own self-perpetuation. Its duty was to strengthen the life force by fulfilling ritual obligations. The group alone conferred immortality -which is why the individual immersed himself so completely in its ideology, and why duty took precedence over everything else. Only in this way can we understand the willing self-denials of man in society; he accepts the social limitations on his appetites because the group gives expression to the most important appetite of all, the hunger for the continuation of life.”(65).

Becker following Otto Rank believes humans at heart still seek immortality over their own lives and livelihoods: “Unlike Freud, Rank argued that all taboos, morals, customs, and laws represent a self-limitation of man so that he could transcend his condition, get more life by denying life. As he paradoxically put it, men seek to preserve their immortality rather than their lives.” (65). Humans will do almost anything for a promise of security, economic stability, and self-perpetuation of their dignity and power. Even if it means living under a tyrannical leader who serves them as the object of power and mana they in themselves do not have. They seek in this visible image of power and the sacred that is missing the hope for cultural and personal self-renewal and immortality, power and mana in a very real productive form in their daily economic lives as citizens of a sacred land. The mythologies of the Arthurian cycles with their wasteland, maimed Fisher King, the Holy Grail, and the Quest for a New Kingdom and earthly Paradise still haunts our secular cosmos even today.

6 thoughts on “The Secular King: Power, Mana, and Unfreedom

  1. Very much my experience of ideological leftism, social justice ideologies & practices, as well as far-right…but who has more propaganda & wield Western social mediated presence/pressures? Ah, polarities & same-differences…I’m not fond of the quest for institutionalized dominations…of any stripe


    • Yeah, I’m not either, but where would you go to escape it? Nowhere… it’s everywhere. Anarchy or Libertarianism is just a utopian dream as much as any other. I’m as you know more pessimistic about any future other than total dissolution of the human species. A failed project that invented its own thirst for annihilation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I keep pondering Undercommons, persistence, pockets of sustainable ecologies of practice and mythologies of multiplicity/unified like the quantum & cosmic seem to vibrate… we’ll see I guess… species annihilation doesn’t diverge from that potentiality


  2. Hi! I (an 80 year old rabbi) am writing from UK which is currently setting itself up for a very similar fiasco. I read Becker many years ago and agree that he has an important clarity of vision. However, the global situation we now face is unprecedented, one that has been my principal concern for many years: the speed of global warming with associated fires, droughts and floods; mass migration, increasing inequality and scarcities of food and energy. These issues, of course, as well as the pandemic, affect the UK, Europe, the States, let alone the global south.

    There is widespread deep and often unconscious desperation or even despair which can look for escape via authoritarian leadership, anarchy or libertarianism.

    However, I’m really writing to your attention the work of Thomas Homer-Dixon whose encompasses and takes further what you write here. If you’ve not come across him, I do truly recommend a good look!
    Best – and thanks for all your work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yea, I realize the situation is much more expansive and terrifying than what I’ve exposed in this one essay. Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out. Yea, I’m 70 myself so I understand where you’re coming from… been a great change in our lifetime. Sadly.


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