Over the stretch of my life I have rejected a cult, been rejected by a cult and founded a cult. But, then again, on some other level entirely, I completely do not understand the appeal of a cult. When I am a spectator from the outside looking in and examining people accepting strange beliefs and justifying ideologies through a collage of mismatched connections, I think, these people must be crazy. But, on the other side of the cultish horizon, there is a place of belonging, community that is driven by a desire for value and meaningful connection. This is the rub.
In 2020 — otherwise known as, the year that does not end — the uncertainty of a pandemic and the vitriol of our political polemics have created an increase in our need for belonging and connectedness, whilst simultaneously decreasing our methods of forging connection. When this is aided by social media’s compulsion to connect us to the superficially like-minded, we have the bedrock for cults to grow and, perhaps, even blossom.
In the last year we have witnessed three particular phenomenons that I want to discuss: the BLM protests/riots in response to George Floyd, the GameStop short squeeze by WallStreetBets, the Capital Riots by qAnon and, additionally, my cult case-study: an objectivist discord server. I do not want to draw attention to them in isolation, but rather I want to draw attention to them all occurring within the same year-long period of the global pandemic. Is there something about how the pandemic affected us as individuals that facilitated these type of cult-like followings to grow and gain critical mass? And, more importantly, as we start to slowly reopen the social, what kernel of insight can be gained from reflecting on our one year experiment of being-in-the-web.
This is not to say that that any of these movements are not built from or inspired by falsehoods or anti-realism — but that is neither here nor there. There are inequities in our justice system, hedge-fund managers do exploit and manipulate the markets and our political system does embody an aristocracy of elites who are out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans. All these political and philosophical criticisms were true before, during and will be true after the pandemic. I am not attempting to legitimize conspiracy theories or give lip service to toxic ideas, but it should be noted that cult-like-followings — like the ones mentioned — would not exist or gain any social momentum if there was not semblance of truthiness at their core.
In Guy Debord’s 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, he posits a transition from the beginning of the industrial revolution to post-ww2 capitalism that he calls the move from “having” to “the appearance of having”. The fulfillment of humans living in the social is derived from appearing to others as having the means to have things. Social status is not gained by having wealth, but only by appearing to have wealth. Albeit, a picket-white-fence, the latest fashion trend or tech gadgets — we wealth-signal to make us seem accomplished and accepted in a world that only has one metric for judging and assessing human worth.
But, expectedly and unfortunately, we have moved beyond Debord’s critique. By means of the communication revolution and social media we have now transitioned from the appearance of having to the appearance of being. If you want to join the Black Lives Matter cult, WallStreetBets cult or qAnon cult, you do not need to actually do things in reality to help the causes and concerns that lay at the root of these movements; but really you just need to follow the right people on Twitter and re-tweet carbon-copied virtues to signal to the social what cult you associate with. Why go through the trouble of being a good person when you only need to appear to be a loyal to your cult du jour on social media?
If we want to stitch together a criticism of both cults and capitalism in the same breath, then the Ayn Rand Objectivist cult is absolutely exemplar. With the failings of capitalism becoming more obvious, the Ayn Rand cult is not as en vogue as it was in the 1960’s, but nonetheless, it does still have a cult following. By means of a rabbit hole of internet algorithm serendipity, I stumbled upon the videos of a seventeen year old white boy who hypes himself as a staunch advocate for Ayn Rand’esque Capitalism (although he would never call himself an objectivist because he would prefer to espouse their toxic ideas without the stink of being a lemming in a cult) and as an amazing debater who baits and cajoles people of the opposing cult to come to the Aporia Youtube channel (or discord Server) to debate his flawless pro-Capitalism rhetoric. I took the bait. I mean, why wouldn’t I?
My intention from the onset was not to debate anybody, but really to find a sense of community around people who enjoy discussing a broad range of philosophical ideas — since they do not advertise themselves as an Objectivist group, I assumed this was the happenstance opinion of the cajoling white boy who piqued my interest to begin with and not the consensus of the group. Not unlike the critical mass of the cultish-following that swelled around BLM or qAnon or WSB during the pandemic, the Aporia (Objectivist) server was of no difference. With a dramatic increase in membership that I saw go up nearly 10x in my short stint of time, it would be near impossible to say there was any verifiable ideological commonality; but, nonetheless, the loudest voices were of the bombastic, self-righteous and Objectivist variety — and the white boy, who we will call Andy, is their God.
What DeepFuckingValues is to WallStreetBets, is what George Floyd is to BLM, is what Donald Trump is to qAnon, is what Andy is to the Aporia. The only distinction is George Floyd is a martyred deity, and not a living one. The Aporia group would speak about Andy not as a person, but almost as an idea or a concept that was revered in their community — even when he was not online he would be constantly referred to and the chat-threads were always filled with Andy memes as they virtue-signal their credulity — ahem, sorry, faith. Sometimes Andy would show up and join the voice-chat and then — almost instantly — messages would start popping up all over “Andy is in VC” and like parishioners on a holy day, they’d flock to hear the gospel. Would He shower them in pithy wisdom, like a Socrates incarnate — no, of course not. It was more like shallow narcissistic rants cloaked in rhetoric, like a 17 year old boy who assumes that a well constructed assemblage of well articulated big words is akin to a big idea.
But, not unlike their cultish brethren, they contained their own language (slang) and their own specific jargon for their philosophy — I was literally linked to a glossary of terms, so that I would be less confused. As much as I hold absolute disdain for the objectivist philosophy and all the values that radiate from this perspective, I found myself wanting to feel accepted and included — the social need to feel included and be seen as part of the in-group (rather, the in-cult), with the secret-hand-shake and all, is a real need that was amplified in the pandemic.
So, as I reflect on my experiences in the Aporia server…
Which was, by the way, eventually terminated because of sexual harassment complaints made by female members against Aporia management (not Andy, of course, we know He is above the heSaid/sheSaid bickering of mere mortals).
…I understand the appeal and, more importantly, the urge (which can feel like a compulsion) to feel like you belong to something. So, on this level, I totally understand the BLM, WSB, qAnon following and the need to be part of something that has some shadow of meaning in a society plagued by, quite literally, a plague.
However, nothing is ever that simple. In consideration that the Aporia server was very slanted to pro-capitalism, this also means they rendered their beliefs about philosophical engagement around a binary of winners and losers.
In the Aporia sequel that popped up after the sexual harassment allegations, they have added the trend of posting your ‘debate’ stats as part or your user name to ensure everybody can easily discern the philosopher kings, from the philosopher peasants (not Andy, of course, we know He transcends above the pageantries of us common folk).
If you ever engage with anybody in the Aporia server — on any philosophical topic — they (or others) immediately start asking you gonna debate them, as if the expression or discussion of ideas always has to be shoved through the meat-grinder of the capitalist ethos. They have shared documents where they would collect rhetorical talking-points and different ways to “debunk” different positions, as if social-discordance is always a matter of an either/or proposition. This is of no surprise of course, and without much stretch of imagination we can see a similar effect ripple through BLM, WSB and qAnon — they are also knee-deep in their values being pushed and stretched in ways that make them highly susceptible to being challenged and dismissed.
It is not unreasonable to assume that the rise in popularity of all these different movements (and others) was fueled by the coupling of an increased desire to belong as a results of isolation and — simply put — boredom. Now that we are starting to return to normal (in some parts of life), many corporations (and many workers too) want to make shelter-in-place the norm. For a corporate numbers-cruncher, the reduced operating cost from not having massive campuses filled with fringe benefits is an appeal, and for the members of society who can do their job from home and have more time with their family and hobbies, it is also an appeal. But on the other side of this coin is society fully embracing the next level of social media — a society where the real is the augment to the virtual, rather than the virtual as an augment to the real.
But of course there are perks, right? Birthday parties can now include grandma in Montana and your military cousin in Brazil. I can live in Idaho, but work for Google in California. I can attend a university abroad, virtually. I can see the Louvre without leaving my couch, or I can attend a broadway musical as I ride in my autonomous vehicle that I don’t really need anymore. We can make the entire world a flat-model of accessibility that brings a plethora of experiences to your fingertip — a truly classless society (LOL).
In 1981 — before the internet, the birth of Andy and social media — Jean Baudrillard famously wrote that “[w]e live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning;” and if this was true then, then today it requires we add the word ‘more’ a few more times. As we begin to knock on the door of HyperReality and make the trade off of increasing our capacity to have the appearance of experience, whilst also transitioning to the appearance of being. It may be the case that isolation and boredom increased the propensity to find connection, but it was our tendency toward algorithm guided virtual-connection that conditioned our propensity to cult-like followings. In other words, the more and more we enter the fully matured Zuckerberg wet dream, the more and more we will see the “free” association of humans in the virtual-public to manifest as a collection of disconnected cults.
I am not saying we all need to tell grandma to hop on a flight or else she will never see her grandkids again. I am saying we should recognize that the more we embrace the virtual social to increase our access to information and virtual experiences, so will we decrease our outlets for meaningful connection and, subsequently, we may satisfy this lack by fetishizing cult-like-connection.
Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord
Simualcra and Simulation, by Jean Baudrillard
Image Credit: Javier Zarracina / Vox News
And Special thanks to “Andy”, the Aporia God…