Someone once remarked that times of historical transition are about as comfortable as sitting on the edge of a razor. I think we’re all feeling that way right now as the state of chaos (or the Kali Yuga, if you prefer) intensifies. Our responses to this are rather key to the question — the suspense — of whether we will survive it or not… or even how and in what way we will survive it.
We might, however reluctantly, welcome total disintegration as the prelude to a new integration or a New Age as Lewis Mumford seems to have done (or Nietzsche, or William Blake) — as “dancing through the Apocalypse” as someone once described it. A New Genesis, as it were. Even a “New Renaissance”. But there are other forces, demonic in nature, just as eager to provoke chaos for other purposes: forces like the ones that drove Alexandre Bissonnette to murder six people in prayer at a mosque in Quebec City; forces that drove Dylan Roof to murder nine African-American congregants in prayer in South Carolina; forces that drove the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik to murder 77 kids. They are the same forces that move ISIS or al-Shabaab, for that matter — with one purpose: to provoke and incite chaos. Terrorism, of whatever colour or stripe, provokes chaos in order to harvest certain political opportunities that chaos brings with it.
Chaos and civil strife serves the political purposes of the provocateurs of the so-called “alt-right” just as well. It’s a double-game frequently played by theocracies or priestly castes: first, make the people sick with sin, then offer yourselves (as the deserving “righteous”, as the “pure”) as the cure. This is what lay behind the Buddha’s criticism of the Brahmans. This is what lay behind Jesus’ condemnation of “the Pharisees and scribes” of his day also. And when Nietzsche pointed it out about “Christendom” also (or William Blake before him), he was saying no more than what both the Buddha and Jesus had said — that despite their pretenses to the coutrary, the Brahmans and the Pharisees served the forces of darkness, as much as Dostoyevsky’s famous “Grand Inquisitor“.
The provocateur is, then, a kind of Trickster figure — a Mephistophelian character. Trump and his motley crew are like Mephistophelian characters, who, I am sure are just as familiar with “Thriving on Chaos” as others are. Deliberately provoking chaos — civil and social strife — serves the purpose of resorting to even more draconian measures of “law & order” which allows the ruling power to hold itself out as the cure — to consolidate its power even further — to “make the trains run on time”, as was stated of Hitler and Mussolini also. If you saw the movie V for Vendetta, the role of the provocateur is pretty well described there.
Trump is Provocateur-in-Chief. I’m not so sure that his erratic and inflammatory rhetoric and actions don’t have a more sinister intent to them — to justify a more draconian seizure of power in the name of “law & order”, which he himself completely disregards. The duplicity seems strategic — inflame social strife, then hold oneself out as the only “strong man” able to contain and control the chaos thus generated. Thus our responses to provocation become rather important, for actions like resistance through civil disobedience, non-compliance and non-cooperation, protest, and so on may serve Trump’s ends very well.
It becomes an awkward situation, one which was actually referred to obliquely in an article on Hannah Arendt in today’s Guardian entitled “Totalitarianism in the Age of Trump“. (If there’s one thing, so far, positive that has emerged from Trump’s provocations it is that George Orwell and Hannah Arendt are current again). Arendt also, apparently, noted the how protest can have the unintended consequence of serving the provocateur’s ends and purposes.
In such a situation, merely impulsive reactions to such provocations isn’t the wisest of recourses. But neither is compliance with “executive orders” or pernicious laws that are arbitrary, inhumane, un-democratic, or unconstitutional. While protest might feel cathartic, it might also end up feeding the beast of a nascent totalitarianism. It’s happening elsewhere today, where the collectively frightened flock erects a cult of personality around a new “Good Shepherd” who will secure them from enemies inside and enemies outside.
Under the circumstances, the best rule of thumb for countering the provocateur seems to be Gebser’s rule — to know when to let happen and to know when to make happen. There doesn’t seem to be any “guidelines” or programme for this. It’s situational — a matter, perhaps, of intuition.
The answer, though, probably lies in the myths, and that this is largely, I think, what Gebser is pointing us towards for guidance — the stories. The Trickster figure (or Mephistophelian figure) is ubiquitous in the myths and usually there are two scenarios: one where the Trickster’s tricks backfire on him and become self-defeating, and another where the human or other animal outwits and outfoxes the Trickster. There are many books written about Trickster, and a responsible political strategy to counter the provocateur may well be found in the maps provided by the great stories. But one has to have a pretty good understanding of Trickster’s mentality, — of his strengths and weaknesses — in order to know when to let Trickster act to defeat himself, and when to act to defeat Trickster’s intents.
Nietzsche’s familiar maxim that “what does not kill me makes me stronger” very much applies to the encounter with Trickster, which can be fatal for those who don’t recognise Trickster or know his wiles. This is another reason why the stories were (and remain) so important — they taught people how to recognise Trickster, and provided a map, or model, for action — for how to respond to that encounter without succumbing to Trickster’s provocations and wiliness.
There is great wisdom in the great stories. I suggest you familiarise yourselves with them — and especially, given the present circumstances, with Trickster.Ultimately, Trickster is a blundering fool. But typically he causes havoc and mayhem before his own “great reckoning”. Ironic reversal (or unintended consequence) is very often the outcome of Trickster’s tricks.