Alien vs. Predator: The Metastasis of Steve Bannon
September 23, 2019
As I’ve previously written, in the spirit of Yeats’s Second Coming poem, the axis of conflict in the coming decades will be a civilizational battle between two irreconcilable, non-liberal regimes and worldviews – backward-looking, Creator-centered Catholic natural law and forward-looking Creation-centered complexity science.
As I’ve also previously written, Steve Bannon, who welcomes this Armageddon, discloses the raw political truth beneath the verbally seductive natural law truisms on which the Republican Party in the United States has propped itself up in recent years.
Steve Bannon gets many things epically wrong, but one big thing I believe he absolutely gets right is the inevitability of this looming civilizational battle, which is now arriving in a whirlwind of technology transformation and creation collapse, and which yet appears to most of us, still locked in conventional and increasingly irrelevant liberal mindsets (as we must, to preserve our sanity), as weirdly surreal and unreal, as simultaneously compelling and ridiculous, perhaps not unlike how we might feel if were suddenly drawn into an Alien v. Predator movie.
But Steve Bannon, who makes (terrible) films and who inhabits a cinematic mental universe, absolutely appreciates what it might mean when cinema displaces life, and in this sense grasps a looming (and quite apocalyptic) truth about our near-term future as a species that the rest of us, understandably, have no interest in facing.
Complexity Science and Catholic Natural Law
This is a – quite cool and remarkable – infographic that threads together the layers and intersections of the ideas that represent the emergent history of complexity science since World War II. Complexity is a term that encompasses systems, species, and forms of existence and behavior consisting of thousands or millions or bazillions of entities and interactions that have no obvious external and defining logic or set of instructions.
Consider the “swarm intelligence” of fish and birds. Or the complex division of labor of ants and bees. Or the flow of traffic, the movements of markets, the spread of memes, the dynamics of contagion. All functioning without fixed systems of “command-and-control.” Without any obvious “prime mover” or “uncaused cause.” Without a God. With no universal “natural law.” Creations, in other words, without a Creator.
One might construct a similar – although probably less fascinating – infographic that knits together the ideas and individuals and movements and regimes of conservative Catholics who take their inspiration from Thomist conceptions of natural law that begin with the Abrahamic premise of an all-powerful Creator who established a fixed, hierarchical “natural order” governed by laws that human individuals (unlike other creatures) might know, and to which human individuals (unlike other creatures) are accountable, by virtue of their connection to this Creator, who created them in His image and who gifted them with agency, with rational, logical faculties that mirror His creative powers and that allow them to deduce His will.
The Steve Bannon Node
At some point in the more recent chronology of this infographic, one would position contemporary American Catholic conservatives such as Robby George and Steve Bannon, in relation both to each other and to a constellation of 20th-century and 21st-century intellectuals, activists, and other public figures who have organized their lives around these Creator-centered premises of Catholic natural law.
If one wanted, specifically, to zoom in on the “Steve Bannon” node of this infographic, and spotlight the threads of influence flowing through him, one would find connections to obscure (to the liberal mind) radical traditionalists of a vaguely European-Catholic-Fascist persuasion, ranging from Julius Evola to Carl Schmitt to (less persuasively) Martin Heidegger, as well as connections to contemporary public intellectuals whose flamboyant ideas have recently “broken through” the Overton Window and gained currency as a species of discourse worth taking seriously. I am thinking here of weirdos – almost all recent Catholic converts – such as New York Post editor, Sohrab Amari, Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermuele, and trumpeting Trumpist political theorist Timothy Gordon – each of whom in recent years has, in Catholic public affairs journal First Things and elsewhere, advanced bold perspectives about the death of liberalism and the options this presents for the political theology of Catholic integralism, which would obliterate church-state barriers and superimpose a terrestrial layer of morality and control, under the auspices of natural law, to root out deviance and knit together the republic.
In all cases, we can associate this recent profluence of craziness with a molten and subductive metastasis of primitive ideas that Steve Bannon himself anticipated and welcomed in his 2014 Vatican address to the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. A metastasis, ironically, that possesses the properties of an emergent event or moment characteristic of a complex system. Let’s return to Bannon at the Vatican to see how it all breaks down (or breaks out).
Steve Bannon Mostly Just Wants to Blow Things Up
According to Steve Bannon, ordinary, working-class, middle-class families who formed the bedrock of the American Tea Party movement and (conveniently) of Judeo-Christian, Western civilization have been crushed economically between a wealthy, arrogant, crony-capitalist overclass and an impoverished, dependent, dissolute underclass – both in their own way sucklings of the state. At the same time, Bannon tells us, the virtuous way of life this middle-class materializes has been threatened existentially by sub-human radical Islamists and deluded, amoral secularists – both in their own way enabled by the moral relativism and spiritual weakness of global elites, the dissolute underclass, and the theologically neutered state.
There are many ironies here. Bannon associates the Judeo-Christian West with the best kind of capitalism – enlightened and middle class – which stands in opposition to crony capitalism associated with the global Davos/Wall Street set who have ransacked national borders and cultural boundaries. But the immigrant families he wants to deport – from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa – tend to be precisely those most associated with the family-based, entrepreneurial capitalism he wants to protect and support.
Bannon also wants to deconstruct the administrative “deep” state (his biggest applause line at the CPAC conference in February 2017). But in his Vatican address he advocated for the legislative restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act, which would presumably require significant regulatory and administrative oversight. “I think you really need to go back and make banks do what they do,” Bannon says. “Commercial banks lend money, and investment banks invest in entrepreneurs and to get away from … the hedge fund securitization, which they’ve all become basically trading operations and securitizations and not put capital back and really grow businesses and to grow the economy.” And of course, Bannon himself willingly nuzzled at the teat of the Mercer family, whose immense fortunes derive from the Renaissance Technologies hedge fund.
Finally, the civilizational and economic critique that Bannon employed to explain the rise of populist, “Tea Party”-like nationalist movements across the globe possibly applies more fully to other nations, and perhaps by a wide margin, than it does to the United States, which remains more economically resilient and robust, and safer from the impact of joblessness, poverty, migration, and terror attacks than Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Perhaps one of the explanations for these ironies has to do with Bannon’s overt criticisms of globalization; his arguments for economic and financial reform; his skepticism about neoconservative/neoliberal foreign interventions and nation-building in Islamic countries; and anxiety about what immigration trends, religious belief, and racial differences imply for national culture and identity.
These are all important, challenging, and appropriate concerns. But that Steve Bannon has always been more interested in a recursive Populist politics – stoking anxiety and fear and anger, rather than fully thinking through and actually solving these problems – tells us a lot about how he (and not, for example, an ideological policy wonk like Stephen Miller) rapidly lost his way politically once he (and Trump) had to create a positive policy program on top of this fear and anxiety and anger.
Notably, one never really sees what lies beyond the blood-orange bloom of destruction he prophesies. Because, like many end time millennialists, there is nothing. In other words, Steve Bannon mostly just wants to blow things up. He thinks that’s cool and doesn’t really give a shit about the devastation that ensues.
Bannon in the Wilderness
For Donald Trump, of course, the mechanisms and power of the presidency have always and only been about addressing and restoring to precarious balance the interior feeling states of Donald Trump. And of course we now know that Steve Bannon, useful to Donald Trump’s political ambitions as presidential candidate, and expert at adjusting Donald Trump’s feeling states as presidential candidate, entered the White House with enormous political and policy capital, which he squandered, not for any politically good reason except that he was unable to translate his necromancer feeling state skills from the campaign trail to the institutions and mechanisms of government.
Bannon truly does hate the mainstream media, and truly does love his base of disaffected Deplorables. But we also know that his former White House boss only hates the mainstream media when they are the meanstream media – mean to him, at least – and only loves the Tea Party, alt-Right rabble – with its memestream media – so long as he needs them politically. The Tea Party having morphed into the Freedom Caucus on Capitol Hill – who have turned out perhaps to be meaner than the mainstream media – Bannon’s capacity to serve Trump’s emotional needs were at odds with his own policy and loyalty commitments. Bannon might love a “gunfight,” but he was almost certainly unprepared for the Jared-Ivanka pillow fight. And so Steve Bannon’s loyalty to the Republican “base,” and to the promises Trump made to this base – regarding economic policy, trade nationalism, infrastructure, immigration, foreign policy, and traditional values – marginalized him within the White House and (not even retrospectively) made his premature departure inevitable.
The Trump-Bannon parting of the ways cast Bannon back into the wilderness, but we always knew the wilderness was where he thrives and belongs. To the degree illiberal democracy remains in play, globally and in the United States, Bannon has remained nefariously relevant. And what this relevance means, we do clearly learn from his Vatican address, is ongoing promotion of the radical traditionalist ideology and worldview shared by the integralist cohort of the First Things persuasion.
Radical traditionalism confuses and disorients the mainstream media and mainstream voters, and is cognitively disruptive, because it challenges global liberal democracy via radically “illiberal” post-democratic, post-modern populist means – epitomized by the rise of the Internet troll; “fake news”; a “dear leader” despotism; a rife species of unhinged, paranoid and conspiracy-oriented thinking; and the descent upon our daily lives of an omnipresent fog of war.
At the same time, the “traditional” goals of the radtrad program – its ends – profoundly challenge the liberal democratic order via a decidedly pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment, neo-Thomist, natural law philosophy of community and conflict that takes, as its “self-evident” starting point, the idea of the human individual as the imago Dei – a fraught, freighted concept that has become the pillar of the cultural revanchism and irredentism characteristic of illiberal democracy in Catholic nations such as Italy, Spain, Poland, and Hungary.
In the Vatican address, Bannon repeatedly describes the war against jihadist Islamic fascism as a “metastasizing” cancer spreading to all corners of the globe. No region, no nation can afford to ignore this civilizational threat. What accounts for this metastasizing, cancerous growth of the Islamic State? According to Bannon (in perhaps an intended neo-Marxist irony) “the tools of capitalism” themselves have facilitated the metastasis of the Islamic State, by which he seems to mean the ways in which ISIS made use of social media and online fundraising to recruit, cajole, intimidate, and terrorize.
In an extended riff on Vladimir Putin (whom Bannon regards as “quite an interesting character” and “very, very, very intelligent” and someone from whom we in the West could learn a lot concerning traditionalism and nationalism), Bannon also used the term “metastasize” to describe the significance of the ideas of Julius Evola and other radical traditionalists in the intellectual genealogy of fascism and, more recently of the pro-Russian “Eurasian” movement. Bannon sees these metastasizing ideas of radical traditionalism as elements of nationalist opposition to the pan-Europeanism of the EU.
Likewise, he identifies radical traditionalism in the United States with the “states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.” Bannon opens quite a can of worms with these statements, particularly with his ahistorical rendering of the US founding as a proto-fascist event (note the focus on controlling “freedoms”). We can reasonably assume he is not making an argument for a return to the Articles of Confederation.
Indeed, given the Vatican venue for this talk, as well as the references to the “metastasizing” war between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic East and the “metastasizing” (and basically batshit-crazy) authoritarian and traditionalist ideas of Julius Evola, it might be more fair and more accurate to suggest Bannon is advocating himself for a kind of hierarchical meta-state (and stasis) based on spiritual values and traditions to fill the vacuum left by any restoration of his localized “states-based entity.”
A hierarchical meta-state not unlike the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps. Which of course meshes closely with the integralist vision of reactionary American Catholic intellectuals such as Vermuele, Amari, and Gordon, all of whom have read the obituary for Enlightenment liberalism and fully welcome its demise.
Which returns us to The Second Coming. Some have speculated that Bannon might reengage with Trum, either in the White House itself or in a reprise as campaign maestro. This seems unlikely.
Bannon has fully demonstrated he possesses no chops for policy or governing. Not that Trump does either, of course, but returning Bannon to the West Wing risks reducing the fabled Alien-Predator outcome both seem to crave (imagine the ratings) to an intramural Oval Office squabble.
And Neolithic terrifying giant, Brad Parscale, runs Trump’s tech-savvy reelection campaign with facile, breezy confidence (probably not unwarranted, given operational and tactical buffoonery on the Democratic side) that Bannon will not easily sideline.
So we will not see the Second Coming of Steve Bannon in any conventional resume-building, failing-upward sense of the term. What we probably will see, however, is the chaotic, apocalyptic set of political, social, and economic outcomes Bannon anticipates, welcomes, and works ceaselessly to hasten, a Second Coming of far more extreme proportions that authenticates the most cinematic reading of Scripture as a blood-spumed reaping and sowing.
And this is where radical-traditionalist, anarchist-authoritarian Steve Bannon, insane clown Donald Trump, and spiritual-Yoda-in-a three-piece-suit Robby George converge in real time. All three view the human experience through the Creator-centered lens of individual agency (the imago Dei) that pits “good” against “evil” the self against the world, a projection of terrestrial power and struggle that has little bearing on the deeper realities of our species existence (which as complexity science tells us, are randomized and stochastic), but that possesses enormously recursive and resilient cultural power within the western world’s Abrahamic major religious traditions, each of which nourish and, in times of stress, lean into a millennial end time fanaticism.
In a time of crisis that requires a new generosity of spirit and commitment to our species and to our Creation, all three of these men, and all three of these religions, have been doubling and tripling down on a backward-looking, regressive nostalgia for mythic worlds that only exist in their imaginations. All three would rather watch the world explode than give up that vision.
Which should scare the shit out of the rest of us.