The failure of the ÜberSeeles

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Regarding the rise of current populist movements and their craving for charismatic leaders Übermensch is the wrong word for what we are seeing, because Übermensch is basically a secular term, and so it misses the primitive religious feelings and primal mysticism that animates current populist movements. ÜberSeele is a better term: over-soul, the soul beyond. It’s important to have a term with some mystical connotation.

I apologize that most of my examples come from the Western tradition. I’ve studied the history of the West much more than I’ve studied other regions. But the psychology is clearly global. There is a large part of every population that believes in the mystical powers of the ÜberSeeles. Some attributes of the ÜberSeele-ists:

1.) In Britain ÜberSeele-ists insist that the monarchy must survive, because the monarchy binds society together. They have no evidence to defend this belief, it is a kind of mysticism. Likewise, after the English Civil War, when many had grown weary with Cromwell’s rule, people began to crave the restoration of the monarchy. They would say to each other “All will be well when the King enjoys his own again.” This was straight up mysticism, with no supporting evidence. In modern times, this same idea is described as “trickle down economics.” The notion that the public should shower gifts upon the powerful, in the hopes of winning kindness in return, has been shown to have as much practical value as the notion that we should sacrifice a hundred strong bulls from our herds, in the hopes of winning the kindness of the gods. A fascinating fact is that this impulse reemerges, again and again, spontaneously, no matter how many times it has failed in the past.

2.) ÜberSeele-ists denounce the use of childhood vaccines, but they ardently support doctors who claim to have miracle cures for cancer and multiple sclerosis and AIDS. The benefits provided by childhood vaccines have a substantial literature of research behind them, but all of this can be dismissed because that literature has been created by people who seem normal. Miracle cures are different. An ÜberSeele doctor, or a faith healer, is seen to be able to cure cancer and multiple sclerosis and AIDS because an ÜberSeele can achieve the impossible. (In modern times the religious implication is hidden, but in olden times people would have openly described an ÜberSeele as touched by God. Indeed, such language is still common in places like India.) Whereas normal people (Edward Jenner, Jonas Salk) are imperfect weaklings, ÜberSeele are successful at everything.

3.) ÜberSeele-ists tend to ignore experts, because experts are normal people (not touched by God). Therefore, ÜberSeele-ists tend to denigrate expertise, since they believe that an ÜberSeele can be successful at anything, even where they lack expertise. In the Christian tradition, there has long been a debate about whether it is best to study the Bible (become an expert at theology) or be visited by the Holy Ghost (instantly be granted wisdom by God). In 1646 the rebel (Parliamentarian) troops in England started pulling their own officers off their horses, putting a gun to the heads of the officers, and asking “Is it better to study the Bible, or be moved by the Holy Spirit?” The correct answer was “It is best to be moved the Holy Spirit.” If an officer failed to give the correct answer, they had their head blown off. Most of the troops were nearly illiterate, so they tended to put their faith in the spirit they felt inside themselves, rather than the words they could not read in a book (though the rebel army committed itself to teaching the troops to read, on the theory that those who could read the Bible were safe from the lies of the Pope). In some sense, the rebel army was an expression of populist rage, of a type that has recurred throughout history. Buddhism has seen a very similar debate, with similar language used, with some groups arguing for long, patient years of study, and other groups arguing for the importance of sudden mystical revelation. For an ÜberSeele-ist it is obvious that a single moment of mystical revelation can make one more of an expert about God than endless years of study might. In modern times, this attitude has been extended to science, psychology, economics, diplomacy, and all other matters that require expertise. Therefore, in the USA, it is assumed that President Trump can manage international relations far better than Hilary Clinton might have. After all, who needs expertise? Trump’s followers see him as an ÜberSeele, and therefore capable of anything. The ÜberSeele-ists tend to be anti-intellectual, since intellectualism implies that intellectual effort has importance, and this is dangerously close to recognizing that expertise has importance. The anti-intellectual stance fits comfortably with the populist rage that energizes ÜberSeele-ist movements. I once saw a finance minister on the BBC claim that he was unable to understand the arguments of Paul Krugman because Krugman’s arguments were full of theoretical ideas that lacked common sense. I have no training in economics but I was able to follow Krugman’s arguments, meanwhile the finance minister had gone to the finest schools in Britain and gotten the best grades, so obviously he could understand what Krugman was saying. But it was politically comfortable to pretend to be stupid, because anti-intellectualism fits with the populist mood that got the Conservatives elected.

4.) ÜberSeele-ists feel that equality before the law is unnatural. It seems obvious to them that some people are special and should be granted a special status. Everyone else, the vast realm of ordinary people, are lesser and fallen. In the Christian tradition there is the notion that a few people belong to the Elect, and everyone else is going to Hell. Martin Luther said that only about one in ten men was a true Christian. In nearly every civilization based on agriculture, the notion arose of a nobility that had to be respected, versus a vast peasantry that was devoid of rights. In China, or India, the nobility faced no repercussions if they killed a peasant. In different societies, the division is sometimes based on land, other times based on membership in the warrior class (Poland and Japan both offer examples of having a warrior class that was sometimes landless), other times education, such as the mandarins of China, but anywhere the hard division was seen as natural and perhaps heredity, there existed factions that were willing to make a strong case against due process for all.

5.) ÜberSeele-ists tend to suspect that they themselves are ÜberSeeles, and that this makes them unique. The followers of ÜberSeeles see themselves as petite ÜberSeeles who will one day break through and become true ÜberSeeles. Someday, perhaps after years of struggle, they will be illustrious, admired, praised, and above all else, understood. When it is convenient, and there is no danger in doing so, the ÜberSeeles will humor their followers, and encourage them with the message “You can be just like me.” A common example that runs rampant in the USA is the notion “Anyone can be an entrepreneur,” an idea with powerful populist appeal. This idea glosses over the reality, that most successful entrepreneurs start off with gifts from their family, either through inheritance, or more recently through “friends and family” rounds of funding, a type of funding that only makes sense if ones friends and family are affluent. In Protestant terms, ÜberSeele-ists see themselves as part of the Elect, or, using language from a different tradition, it suggests they have separated themselves from those who are degraded by toil. This gives them the right to follow a policy of “amoral familism” of the type that Edward C. Banfield talked about in his book “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society”. ÜberSeele-ists will watch a movie such as the Godfather and regard it as a manual for how to lead a proper life. They have separated themselves from those who are degraded by toil — this seems to hold true even for those who are working 12 hours a day for a low wage. Political activists on the Left are often exasperated at the way an impoverished factory worker will identify with a wealthy oligarch. Such activists wonder what is the point of similarity? The connection is a mystical secret: the factory worker and the oligarch are both ÜberSeele, capable of anything, capable of changing reality, of breaking out of the bounds that hold them. Both the factory worker and the oligarch might inwardly think that they are doing the best they can for their family, and they are steadfast in this belief even when their children regard them as abusive and their spouse asks for a divorce.

6.) ÜberSeele-ists tend to push against process, regulation, and the law — all things which tend to limit the room to maneuver which ÜberSeeles need to achieve their goals. ÜberSeele-ists often seem to be in favor of arbitrary power.

7.) ÜberSeele-ists are not necessarily racist, but there does seem to be an overlap between ÜberSeele-ists and racists. It is possible that the kind of person who believes in the mystical powers of the ÜberSeeles also tends to believe that ÜberSeeles are more likely to come from certain races. In the old days, these races were seen to be favored by God, and in modern times, ÜberSeele-ists assemble rickety pseudo-scientific arguments to suggest that one race has greater intelligence, or some other secular sounding metric.

8.) ÜberSeele-ists believe in good ÜberSeeles and evil ÜberSeeles. President Trump might be seen as good, whereas George Soros might be seen as evil (or perhaps the other way around, but for some reason that is rare). ÜberSeele-ists don’t seem to see mass movements as having much effect on history. ÜberSeele-ists very much take the Great Men view of history. I assume this is why they tend to believe in conspiracy theories. Circumstance doesn’t exist, everything that happens is the outcome of the actions of some ÜberSeele. Clearly, this is a mystical interpretation of history.

9.) ÜberSeele-ists often demonstrate paranoia regarding the criticism they receive from non-ÜberSeeles. During the English Civil War, the established Anglican Church tried to fight back against the explosion of new mystical sects by asking the question “If you hear a voice inside of you, how do you know it is God, and not the Devil?” There is no easy answer, and therefore the ÜberSeeles are left on shifting ground, desperate to prove themselves. ÜberSeeles simply know they are inspired by God, anyone who questions their connection to God might be fallen, corrupt, an agent of the Devil. ÜberSeeles know they are of the Elect, and they know their critics are not, and therefore their critics are going to Hell. Thus, criticism can never be treated as an invitation to a conversation, but rather, it is the revolt of the Darkness against the Light. In modern times, the rhetoric has become more secular. In the mid-20th century, when African-Americans protested against the unjust laws they were oppressed by, a large faction of white leadership branded them as Communists. Very few African-Americans were actually Communist, for the most part, the idea that they were Communist was a paranoid fantasy of certain whites. In another era they might have been branded Satan’s Helpers, but “Communist” was the secular sounding word in favor in the mid-20th century. In recent years, and with deliberate though unstated irony, many on the Right have complained of a “witch hunt” whenever journalists ask them about crimes they have committed. Demonstrating a somewhat similar set of tensions, in the early to mid 20th Century, as Communism spread through Asia, if a person broke with one faction but later wanted to reconcile with that faction, they had to engage in an elaborate self-criticism session during which they explained how they had been lied to, but how they had finally come to realize that the ÜberSeele followed by this faction was a true ÜberSeele, unlike the fake ÜberSeeles followed by other factions.

10.) Those seen as ÜberSeele by ÜberSeele-ists tend to engage in boasting regarding their special qualities. They often come across as status conscious. A mating dance plays out between an ÜberSeele and their ÜberSeele-ists, whereby the ÜberSeele promote themselves and their ÜberSeele-ists cheer. It’s a bit like the rituals that bond a sports team and its fans. Following a particular ÜberSeele becomes part of the ÜberSeele-ists identity. The petite ÜberSeele draw strength from the association with their ÜberSeele. While an ÜberSeele might be anti-intellectual, they will certainly boast of any academic achievement to which they can point. An ideal marriage, a physically beautiful spouse, an achievement in business, types of travel, quality of one’s ancestors — anything that has status value is promoted, even if the boast is undermined by other facts. Thus a man who is known to have cheated on all of his wives, and is currently on his third marriage, still boasts about the beauty of his spouse. This may not make sense to those who are not committed to following a particular ÜberSeele, but to the ÜberSeele-ists who follow, and who consider themselves to be ÜberSeele too, all that’s needed is something aspirational they can cheer and imagine they will achieve. In the Christian tradition, there was the question of how the Elect could identify each other, and status symbols were important because they were seen as demonstrating the favor of God. This much translates easily from other civilizations. The Hindus also regarded inheritance and fortune to be signs of the favors of the Gods.

11.) ÜberSeele-ists tend to believe that ordinary people are (using religious rhetoric) fallen, dirty, corrupt, or (using modern secular language) stupid, frightened, irrational, and therefore in need of harsh policing and severe punishments. In contrast, the ÜberSeele must be holding the favor of God, and is therefore incapable of real sin. Throughout the history Abrahamic religions, there have been movements which have emerged and made the argument that the dirtiness of the world comes from the Original Sin, but once one has been saved, one has been washed clean of sin, and therefore one can no longer be guilty of evil. In the 1750s, in Podolia, Poland, a Jew named Jacob Frank announced that he was the Messiah. Profoundly charismatic, he built a new Shabbetean movement. How could they defeat sin, he asked? Only by engaging in sin, and exhausting it, could they be free of sin. This lead to some of the most spectacular orgies that were known to have occurred in Eastern Europe during the modern period. Likewise, the Anabaptists, when they took control of Munich in the early 1500s, made the argument that they could have as much sex as they wanted, because it was no longer sinful, because they were all Saved. From all reports, the city engaged in a truly fantastic orgy before the Imperial troops showed up and murdered the leaders of the movement. When George W Bush was President of the USA the Republicans were guilty of many crimes, which the conservative media was willing to justify. Progressives began to joke “It’s okay if you’re a Republican!” The attitude among Republicans seemed to be that it was acceptable for Republicans to break the law, so long as they did it for patriotic reasons. No one else was allowed to break the law, because no one else was really patriotic. And then, of course, there is astounding example of the Trump Administration, where every week brings a new scandal so shocking it would have broken any previous Administration. Those who regard themselves as ÜberSeeles seem to quite sincerely believe that their actions are not crimes, despite the objective facts of the situation. Thus we recently had a candidate such as Roy Moore, who was in his 30s when he sexually assaulted a 14 year old girl, and he seems to quite honestly believe he is the true Christian who is on a crusade to save society from the sinners. What’s worrisome is that even after his many crimes had been widely discussed, 49% of the voters voted for him, and that included 66% of the whites.

12.) ÜberSeele-ists tend to see a lot of importance in symbols. Iconography has mystical power for them. Flags are important, religious symbols, graphics. In modern times, tattoos have become important. A symbol such as the nations flag, or a Nazi symbol, or a Christian cross, or Islamic star and crescent, are seen as holding great power. While any political movement can use symbols to help rally people, ÜberSeele-ists tend to give these symbols something that seems more than can be explained as a practical value.

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History is full of paradox. The permutations of ÜberSeele-ist thought occasionally have progressive manifestations. In some ways the most ÜberSeele-ists religion in history was the Quakers, which was founded by some rebel soldiers after the English Civil War. They were extreme in their view that it was more important to have the Holy Spirit speak through oneself, than to study the Bible. In that sense, they favored mystical revelation over study and expertise. Nevertheless, the Quakers emerged as the first group of white people who were absolutely opposed to all forms of slavery, and the religion has evolved in a surprisingly progressive direction, especially considering its origin.

Any movement which has a working class base can evolve in a progressive direction, if the people are willing to see their own experience as universal to all humans. This seems to have happened with the Quakers, who were willing to see blacks as full humans. Quaker’s progressive potential was helped when they carried forward some of the rebel slogans, such as: “God is no respecter of Persons.” This is from the era when “Persons” could mean “Peer of the realm”. In other words, God loves everyone equally, God does not care about one’s social rank. From that view, the Quakers were never ÜberSeele-ists.

Please note, I am not suggesting that those who seek direct experience of God are right-wing in their politics. Obviously such people have diverse politics. But those who tend to hold their minds some hard division between the fundamental value of the Elect versus the non-Elect, or the warrior class versus the non-warrior class, or the entrepreneurs versus the non-entrepreneur, will tend to be right-wing.

Over the last two years, I’ve read endless articles that talk about the upsurge of populist spirit in the West, and how this threatens the liberal foundations of the West. I find the term “populist” to be overly broad. There are many kinds of populism, most of which are reactionary, but not all. “ÜberSeele-ist” seems more precise to me, it seems to capture the thread that connects the anti-vaccine movement to trust in oligarchs.

Still, the modern era is an era of expertise. Society is complex, and depends on a high degree of specialization. The “ÜberSeele-ist” distrust of expertise is likely to end in disaster. Paul Krugman says this well, regarding economics:

Authoritarian instincts and contempt for rule of law aren’t the only things Erdogan and Trump have in common. Both also have contempt for expertise. In particular, both have surrounded themselves with people notable both for their ignorance and for their bizarre views. Erdogan has advisers who believe that he is under psychic assault; Trump has advisers who yell profanities at each other while on trade missions.

…The truth is that most of the time the quality of economic leadership matters much less than most people — economic leaders included — believe. Really destructive policies, like those driving Venezuela into the ditch, are one thing. But run-of-the-mill policies like changes in tax law, even if they’re pretty big and clearly irresponsible, rarely have dramatic effects.

…But when big shocks do hit, the quality of leadership suddenly matters a lot. Which is what we’re seeing in Turkey now.

…What we get instead are long stretches of complacency followed by sudden panic. Students of international macroeconomics are fond of quoting “Dornbusch’s law” (named after my late teacher Rudiger Dornbusch): “Crises take longer to arrive than you can possibly imagine, but when they do come, they happen faster than you can possibly imagine.”

And in Italy, there is the odd fact that the Five Star League is both anti-vaccine, but in favor of quack doctors who promote miracle cures:

De Barros’s family, defended by a lawyer called Giuseppe Conte, went to court to demand that their daughter, suffering from a terminal illness that leads to paralysis and blindness, be given the so-called “Stamina” treatment, over the concerns and objections of scientists and doctors who warned that it was unproven and possibly dangerous.

One of the voices at the centre of the gut-wrenching fight was a burgeoning political party called the Five Star Movement, which had seized on De Barros’s story as an example of how Italy’s “establishment” was hurting ordinary citizens by keeping a “cure” out of reach. Stamina was “effective” and deserved further research, the party claimed in a press release at the time, because “citizens” believed that it was. Beppe Grillo, one of the Five Star Movement (M5S) founders, who has also supported unproven cures for cancer, used his popular blog to support pro-Stamina protests.

In fact, Stamina was later proved to be a con, and the psychologist behind the treatment, Davide Vannoni, was convicted of conspiracy and fraud.

…“They consider the institutions to be their property. I think that this is the basic problem,” said Bonino. Asked about the Stamina episode and the parties’ criticism of mandatory vaccinations, she added: “The anti-scientific mood is very big.”

The “establishment” can not be trusted because the “establishment” consists of ordinary people, who are weak and pathetic, because everyone is weak and pathetic except for the ÜberSeele. This is how religious thought is reviving itself in a secular age. Especially in the West, the distinction of special and non-special people is a revival of older ideas about the Elect versus the non-Elect. Don’t be confused by the use of secular language. This is fundamentally a revival of the struggle between secularists versus those of a mystical mindset.

Likewise, a man who considers himself an ÜberSeele of course believes that he, and he alone, has the power to cure AIDS:

Jammeh was not always regarded with suspicion and fear. But throughout his reign, he became increasingly eccentric and high-handed, and his citizens began to believe he had lost the plot. Fatou Jatta, who encountered Jammeh for the first time in 2007, was one of the first Gambians to publicly disclose that she was HIV positive, had been instructed to come to the presidential residence in Banjul. She and a group of eight other HIV-positive men and women were to begin a course of treatment devised by the president. He wore a flowing white gown, and asked politely for her to take off her clothes and lie down. “It wasn’t a good massage,” Jatta remembered. “He wasn’t a good masseur. But then again, his day job was president.”

Each submitted to Jammeh’s massage and then gathered on the grandiose porch to take their medicine: a glass of green fluid, which he administered in person. Jatta never discovered what it contained. The first time they drank it, everyone vomited, but they learned to keep it down – under the stern glare of rifle-bearing soldiers.

The patients returned for their treatment every morning for nine months. The treatment was the invention of the president himself, and he paraded his medical breakthrough to the international press, while insisting that his recipe remain a secret, “like Coca-Cola”, he said.

An estimated 9,000 HIV-positive Gambians were forced to abandon conventional medicine in favour of Jammeh’s homemade recipe, according to the US-based NGO Aids-Free World. Not only did Jammeh insist he could cure HIV, he also appeared to believe he was immortal. He kept lions as pets and buried the bodies of his enemies in his backyard. He also drained the country’s economy.

The ÜberSeele are going to fail, and the results will be disastrous. They are going to fail because modern society is complex, and needs highly trained experts to manage most aspects of society. The more that populists movements are able to gain power, and ÜberSeele promote anti-intellectualism as an acceptable response to our current problems, our problems will get worse.

The kind of mysticism that leads to worship of ÜberSeeles has always existed, but for the last two centuries it has tended to be on the fringe. Only during the last few years has it again become the dominant trend of Western politics. This is a strain of conservatism that Friedrich Hayek was thinking of when he wrote:

Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic and power adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place.

Why is this particular type of mysticism gaining so much power now? I don’t know all the reasons, but I do know one: it is not being called out for what it is. It is fundamentally a religious revolt against the kind of secular government needed to deal with real world problems. We need to discuss, in a very public way, how much mysticism can be allowed to guide our governing policies. We need to talk about this honestly, or things are going to get worse.

In the West, there is a small set of groups that call themselves Christian Nationalists. There is a vastly larger set of groups that pretend to be secular, but are in fact motivated by a set of beliefs which are essentially mystical.

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