The Cult of Modernity
Recently, several cult documentaries have been produced. These TV shows follow the progressive line of the allure of a cult until the final violent rupture. The other day, I was watching one of these Netflix documentaries about a non-religious cult, and it was awful, like every cult. While watching it, I wondered how much cults are not random but an extension of Modernity — I can’t help myself from comparing them to the promised land of Modernity, for they are just another expression of the fragmented minds created by (and who created) this culture. That got me thinking: isn’t Modernity a kind of tech-in-love-with-the-idea-of-itself cult? Are cults really so weird or so far off the common expectation of how the modern psyche works? I went a little deeper into what it means to be in a cult and how people feel when they are in one.
There are plenty of interesting articles online on how to notice if you are in a cult, or help friends who got hijacked by cults. With this piece, I don’t wish to reduce, ridicule, or humiliate people who get out of cults, for it is a very difficult and traumatic psychological experience of profound, pervasive violence and identity annihilation. A slow rebuild back into existence.
Although, when we think about Modernity, the western-antropocentric-tech-capitalist mindset, there is a lot already instilled in us in a very cult-like way, for our whole personalities are molded towards what Modernity values, like production levels, the excessive worth of rationality in detriment of emotions or imagination, the normalization and reduction of diversity, just to state a few.
I’m aware of the paradox this invitation to think-with might bring because of conspiracy theories: I’m definitely not speaking from a conspiracist standpoint — most of these theories do share the cult mindset. The parallels between cults and Modernity do not run linearly toward a framework of “Modernity as a conspiracy.” A conspiracy theory usually involves beliefs that a secret but influential, powerful, and sinister group is responsible for events. My take on Modernity as a cult is about the psychic and unwilling consequences of cult-like frameworks while creating culture; and not an anthropocentric and immature idealization of a secret room of powerful people who control everything. This piece is about understanding that Modernity is much more sealed than we usually acknowledge; detrimental cult-like behaviors, such as over-reliance on charismatic leaders, isolation from outside perspectives, reduced diversity, and close communication, are actually the norm and not the exception.
My proposition is actually outside the broader Western modern zeitgeist, in the exceeding territory of the feral psyche, not confined by the “normal” or supposedly “natural” ways people are expected to act in this specific historical, andro-antropo-euro-centric, rigid, biased, and limited mindset. This offer might send you into cognitive dissonance, and as Dr. Saliha Afridi says (here addressing the Palestian genocide): “Cognitive dissonance is painful… and to step into a new worldview is nothing less than a shattering and collapsing of an old self. (…) It requires you to do the work of grief, personal and collective. It demands not only confronting harsh truths but also reassessing all of your own beliefs and values. Acknowledging that the very foundations upon which you’ve built your understanding are flawed, especially when they’re tied to something as horrific as ethnic cleansing of a people and a land, is a profoundly painful and disorienting experience. It challenges your identity, your sense of right and wrong, and shakes the core of your worldview.”
Etymologically, the word cult came to mean “worship, homage” (still in use in Portuguese language); in the late seventeen century, it became “a particular form or system of worship,” from Latin cultus “care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence,” initially “tended, cultivated.” The word was revived about ancient or primitive systems of religious belief and worship, especially the rites and ceremonies employed in such worship, now with the extended meaning of “devoted attention to a particular person or thing.” Cult relates to cultivate and culture. In this article, I use the term cult to refer to a group devoted to a person, idea, or philosophy, including the current tension of the concept, the controversy, and pejorative implications relating to questionable activities.
So, let us find the similarities between Modernity and cult characteristics.
The transcendental-material promise
It might be challenging to grapple with this because Modernity is a big idea that enables privilege, luxury, and comfort through capital, control and technology. A brilliant idea that “saves” our lives from the monstrous impermanence of Nature — Modernity is an enlightened, transcendent vision, a panacea of fast solutions for all our human vulnerabilities, promising to solve all our problems. Personally, I do benefit from most modern amenities, living a comfortable and privileged life in the Global North.
Modernity tries to fix all the primary human pains, from health and medical systems to death, defense, comfort, food, and energy. This privileged convenience allures us to the illusion that we have everything at our disposal (or might have) if we just produce and control enough. We are also served endless forms to connect despite the pervasive loneliness and isolation; and if we have the right passport, the world is at our disposal. Because of these enticements, many Modernity devotees recruit others worldwide, by narrative or force, actually thinking they are helping or “saving.”
So, we stand obfuscated in a blinding glare of white lights that cover the stars and their old songs. We live imprisoned in the intense white glow of Modernity’s promises — like the opposite image of Plato’s Cave, for instead of shadows, there is only blinding light — leaving us unable to imagine otherwise. Joan Tronto’s brings the idea of privileged irresponsibility (complicity and non-innocence), which added to the epistemologies of ignorance, an examination of the complexity in the production and maintenance of ignorance, gives little opportunity and space on the eurocentric psyche to observe and stay accountable for all of Modernity’s violence and brutal consequences. It’s easier to dissociate and follow the glare and the illusions of exceptionalism.
The trap in Modernity’s assurances is that more often than not, they will be enforced, and diversity will be violently subdued — you have to bypass the local and the context of where you live to abide by the normalized, universal, and set of global rules and beliefs that are often illogical when applied locally. The foundation of Modernity’s panacea is the imagined growth and infinite progress on a finite planet, a desire crafted from a fearful, extractive, and controlling psyche. That’s why the overgrowth excessiveness of Modernity, seated in a deep fear of loss, is so alluring, because it promises a comfortable new life for everyone, constantly bringing in new cult members. However, Modernity asks everything from you: the renunciation of human and ecological kinships, the constant severing, neglecting, and forgetting of living contexts –we must cut ourselves from place and become productive and isolated. Objective Modernity also tries isolating itself from context, following its wishful thinking on absolute universalism, selling its panacea through brainwashing and indoctrination. There is this coercive cult-like idea that if we just follow the production cycle, and if we just abide by capitalist laws and follow the allurement of technology, it will be all right, and everything outside of that is just plain bad or wrong (or primitive, stupid, or lazy). This creates paranoia around growth because progress is the baseline guarantee for government decision processes. But then there are many failures, unacknowledged collapses, and never-seen shadows.
The Enemies and Traitors
One of the core characteristics of a cult is its charismatic leadership model, where the leader (government or corporation) has the ultimate authority. The leader is the one who defines the law, mimicking highly authoritarian governments and corporations. Even if those laws and decisions directly impact you, you might have real challenges in criticizing or asking for change — outsiders from the power core may have real hardships in showing the shadowy side of this type of authority. So you are bound to its supposed command and probably surrounded by people who are convinced about the legibility of this authority.
We come across the elite, who see themselves as enlightened, the powerful chosen ones with the master key to radically transform, slash, and control, individual and community living in the world. You might feel engulfed by this elite, left with a sense of belonging, and unity despite the constant coercion to abide by rules and power struggles that really don’t have anything to do with the ethics of Life, but just follow power. And of course, like in cults, there’s no transparency — artificial intelligence and the transition to a moneyless society are being discussed by governments worldwide, and we are just not part of those conversations, among many other invisible discussions. So, there are many secret rituals and negotiations and bizarre, confusing, offensive, and manipulative things happening — all signs of a cult, but not necessarily conspirational for they are not coordinated in this complex and vast World.
In this type of setting, you cannot afford to be skeptical about institutions or the system itself; you better not lift the veils of criticism. On top of this, there’s always legitimate and not approved information. In Modern highly individualistic cults, valid knowledge or absolute truths come from sponsored science (I’m NOT a science denier, just a critic of excessive narcissistic hero narratives and marketing propaganda plans; science should be a communal endeavor of observing and rigorously asking questions). In modern science, you cannot throw intuition, humor, affection, or love into it — all of those things are subjective, and they cannot enter the truth of things or the institutions. Of course, scientific indigenous practices incorporate much of this, along with symbiotic, more-than-human kinship wisdom and research models, constantly being undermined and invalidated by Modernity. Modernity cult tends to shun everything that doesn’t follow its own logic, for it is believed to be at the top of the evolutionary and moral (imagined) hierarchy in a violent inside joke competition.
And there are the Others, whoever doesn’t belong, those with the wrong passport, the ones who cannot enter or are seen as enemies, outsiders, migrants, or even worse… traitors.
The traitors are people who do not abide by this systemic, globalized order. Cult treatment of traitors is through violence, propaganda, gaslighting, and peer pressure. And, of course, preventing people from thinking, for the enlisted not to forget the promises, discouraging people from leaving Modernity core values and way of life. Modernity is fed by hate and fear of the Other. Like every cult, Modernity needs enemies to keep its coercion and cohesion, its delusional promises — Modernity’s members are encouraged to share their hatred in ritualized forms.
Who is valid? Who owns the truth? Who holds the knowledge? The complete numbing paranoia, the weaponizing of grief and fear, the ideal of Modernity as the purifying force that will overcome all evil. From this hierarchical standpoint, Modernity feels attacked by accusations, by the leftovers of its own genocide, ecocide, torture, and scapegoating. Modernity, like other cults, will only fuel and construct higher walls because “only terror can fight terror;” only isolation can keep this mindset alive, so there’s this collective fear of being destroyed by external enemies. This takes over everything. And of course, like all cycles, it ends with the final conflict, us against them. Preventing destruction and its own annihilation, Modernity creates barricades, isolates itself, and enters into a state of siege. But nothing can stop the cycle from looping, for the violent extracting, colonizing, mining, and coercive excesses that hold modern comforts will collapse its foundations.
The alterity of the Other is part of the definition of a cult; former members or anyone who doesn’t belong to the core group are not legitimate. So, false and reductive narratives abound about Others being bad, lazy, violent, too proud, and even immoral. All these Others outside Modernity’s tentacles are dishonest, for they belong to the wrong groups; everything outside Modernity is primitive, evil, or just plain ignorant and stupid. There’s institutionalized paranoia about the world’s alterity, about everything that does not conform to the capitalist norm of the productive individual — a big fear around diversity, and the Others bringing about annihilation, destruction, and violence. And so there’s this constant need to control, domesticate, and civilize the world itself (although it is too large to control, thank the gods), demonstrated by the military industry complex around the world, massive weapon production, and all the cyclical secular and genocidal wars that happen on a loop. And, of course, in Modernity, late-stage-tech-capitalism, corporations are above the law. Corporations, big tech or industries believe they are above ethics and Life. And so there’s a lot of brainwashing.
There’s abundant bullying and shame, the same control tools used by every cult. Of course, colonialism is a form of bullying, and there’s Christian and Protestant shame. There’s a lot of humiliation because, even though you are glorified as an individual, you don’t have intrinsic value. You are only valued by what you produce, being weapons or knowledge (and only if it fits the rules). So, there are a lot of prescriptive and invisible cult norms. It is fairly easy, within Modernity, for you to believe that you are insufficient or unworthy, completely undeserving — you have countless shortcomings, that you cannot fulfill yourself, and that your self-esteem is wholly lowered, along with the constantly severed and mutilated communities.
The inevitable collapse
But all this fantasized linear hierarchical progression of growth, promised solutions, and imagined enemies will tumble and collapse, and many lives will be lost — late-stage Modernity.
Are we in a cult — is Modernity an immature half-baked-cult(ure) that denies cyclical impermanence, and the real consequences of its own actions?
- Conspiracy theory | Definition, Examples, & Facts | Britannica
- Cult | Definition, History, & Facts | Britannica
- cult | Etymology, origin and meaning of cult by etymonline
- 10 Signs You’re Probably In A Cult | by Sam & Tanner | Medium
- 12 Signs That Someone May Be Involved With a Cult | Psychology Today
- Responsibility, Privileged Irresponsibility and Response-ability: Higher Education, Coloniality and Ecological Damage (Palgrave Critical University Studies), Vivienne Bozalek and Michalinos Zembylas