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King of the castle: magical orders and internal schism

Anyone who has examined the history of occult movements in any detail will realise that schism, disorder, and "magical differences" are a regular occurrence. This is a fact much lamented by contemporary magicians, and there is much wonderment that it continues in the current occult milieu. In examining the development of magical orders as form of social organization, it is necessary to examine some of the predisposing factors which tend to make internal problems almost inevitable.

The roots of the modern occult movement lie in the Nineteenth Century, and it is unsurprising therefore, that some contemporary magical orders style themselves according the 'traditional' patterns established. Magical Orders such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templis Orientis, owed much in their organizational dynamic to Freemasonry. The Golden Dawn, in particular, seems to have set the template for many magical orders thereafter. The key element which should be understood, is not particularly that the Golden Dawn was hierarchical, but that the hierarchical grades came to reflect a kind of 'spiritual' authority. The problem with 'spiritual' authority is that it is rarely open to close inspection by others, and it is fairly easy for a charismatic and forceful person to claim moral superiority to others on the basis of a "higher initiation" which is not, a priori, open to inspection. Such was the position of Magregor Mathers and other leaders in the Golden Dawn, and many of its imitators since. Anyone may make the claim that due to a divine illumination, they have a mandate to lead and inform others (I see a good few letter making such a claim every month), but of course not everyone is in a position to carry it across in a group. The magical order, of course, is often the ideal place to make such a claim and make it stick, and so a good number of would-be gurus and magi have managed to fool at least some people, for quite a long period of time.

The problem with having, as it were, "God on your side", is that it tends to inspire the leader with a tendency towards absolutism. Paranoia is an inevitable consequence, probably due to the feeling that anyone who dares to criticise is also calling into question the very authenticity of the leader's initiation, and therefore, authority. This tends to lead to a direct polarisation of group members into followers and "enemies" - who are not merely challenging the leadership but the entire Order itself.

The cracks in the facade appear by a process of dissonance - occultists participating in a shared belief-system tend to a consensus on what kind of behaviour is consonant with a particular "spiritual" grade. When the leader begins to exhibit behaviour that calls into question his or her assumption of that grade, then the dissatisfaction begins to build further. Thus the leader feels his authority & authenticity are being further challenged, and sooner or later, it will all end in tears.

Internal schism within an order is, in a way, self-regulating, in that it makes a further polarisation between 'followers' and 'enemies'. Having a group of ex-members that the order can categorise now as 'enemies' tends to bond the members together, again, using the glue of mutual paranoia and ruffled feathers. The next course of action is all too familiar: psychic attack, magical battles, sniping through the pages of the occult press and so forth. If the members feel that they have "Truth", "God", or "The Great Work" on their side, then the perceived enemies automatically become black magicians or satanists. Suddenly, the threat of dealing with internal contradictions within the group can be brushed aside as the membership roll their sleeves up for the important task of defending Cosmic Truth against evil, just in the same way that adroit politicians use wars to distract the populace from trouble at home. Studies of groups such as religious cults indicates that groups are remarkably resilient in upholding their shared beliefs in the face of threats to their continued existence.

Since the Sixties, there has been a backlash against the spiritual hierarchy model so favoured by some occult orders. This has led to the proposal that hierarchies are in themselves flawed, and that no leaders are required to manage a group. This view has both strengths and weaknesses, but unfortunately it has received little in the way of critical analysis, and has become a matter of dogmatic belief in the same way that the above model has become an entrenched feature of occult belief - which tends to devolve into absolutes.

While occultists have been apparently existing in a vacuum, the borders of which have been defined by the limits of largely incoherent theories parroted by successive authors - there has been a good deal of research conducted into organizational dynamics, in everything from small therapy groups to large corporations, the outcome of which makes some interesting points about both hierarchies, and leadership. The first point to make about hierarchies is that for some tasks, they function very efficiently - more so that systems where each person is assumed to have equal status. A rather mundane example of this is the so-called "Bystander Effect" - where a group of people will not initiate any action in a situation until someone appears to take charge and organise the group into performing tasks. This is particularly important when decisions need to be taken and acted upon effectively. However, this does not mean that a group which assumes a hierarchical organization is therefore solely limited to behaving as a hierarchy. At other times, members may behave and interact in quite different ways. So hierarchy is a form of organization which a group may use appropriately - although care is required.

Similarly, the question of leadership is more complex than it often appears. Modern texts on group dynamics refer to leadership as a role. In so-called 'Consensus' groups, which outwardly at least, have no leaders, there is no critical evaluation of how the leadership role might appear. Often then, it is the case that charismatic personalities become leaders, by virtue of their ability to influence others, rather than being chosen on a rational basis. It will be obvious to some people that leadership on the basis of "spiritual" authority is not exactly desirable. Equally, charismatic personalities, though they are perceived as being effective leaders, have a tendency to regard the position as their unalienable "right" - due to them having written x number of books or appeared on television as a spokesperson for an unquantified number of followers. The glamour of being perceived as a "star" also tends to lead to the feeling of having an absolute right to lead.

A more effective way to handle the question of leadership is to treat it as a role. If leadership is a role, then it becomes dependent on a definition, based on what it actually entails, rather than being the province of one particular individual, with no clear definition. If the qualities of leadership are explored and defined by the group, then two key points emerge. The first is that anyone may aspire to take on the role of leader in the group - providing they can demonstrate (or acquire) the necessary abilities. Secondly, that whoever takes on the role of leader is accountable to the other members of the organization. If a leaders' task is defined and known, then it is far easier for others to call the leader to account if he or she is not acting appropriately. Morever, since the leader is as much responsible for the success of the group as any other member, then it is less tempting for leaders to place themselves 'above' others in the organization.

This has been a hard lesson for some forms of organization to learn. Absence of clear definition and reliance on absolutist authority which cannot be questioned or criticized tends to lead to systems collapsing. Occultists are particularly prey to problems when attempting to maintain group cohesion as there is a tendency to absolute stances which quickly become entrenched dogmas on the basis of "Truth" - be it legitimised from a spiritual or 'politically correct' standpoint. If "Truth" is treated as a relative rather than an absolute, as in Hassan I Sabbah's dictum "Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted", then the way can be cleared for the modelling of the magical organizations of the next generation on the basis of rational procedures and informed choices.