The Cultic Milieu and the Rise of Violent Fringe

By Stephen Davies

For economists and individualists there are several valuable insights to be gained from the sister discipline of sociology.  (In a previous column I discussed one of these, the notion of a ‘moral panic’). One such idea, which is both powerful and very useful in understanding many contemporary phenomena, is that of the “cultic milieu.” This sociological concept is also strengthened when combined with certain economic insights. The result is a better understanding of a phenomenon that has always existed but has become much more extensive and significant recently.

The concept of the cultic milieu (hereafter CM) was formulated by a British sociologist called Colin Campbell, in an article published in 1972 entitled “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu, and Secularisation”. His interest was in the sociology of religion and he was particularly interested in the phenomenon of radical and heterodox religious cults. In his studies he noticed that cultic groups that were very different in other ways tended to share certain beliefs that put them radically at odds with conventional society in general but which were not overtly religious (e.g. opposition to conventional medical science). In addition some csgroups that were not at first sight religious (radical political groups for example or lifestyle movements) would often subscribe to ideas about some kind of transcendent truth that was at first sight religious. One example was the way extreme right political groups would also espouse things such as neo-paganism or occultism.

The explanation for this was the idea of the cultic milieu. This is a kind of subterranean world or counterculture with a whole range of ideas that are strongly opposed to conventional beliefs and knowledge. These included highly heterodox and unusual religious systems (such as neo-paganism or Theosophy or Satanism), marginalised political ideologies such as neo-Nazism, conspiracy theories, and theories that rejected central elements of orthodox science, such as rejection of vaccination and modern medicine or flat and hollow earth theories. 

Campbell’s insight was that these fringe beliefs did not exist in isolation from each other. They rather all mingled in a social space in which accepted and dominant ways of thinking about the world were rejected. Frequently people who started holding just one of these countercultural beliefs would come into contact with and pick up other ones with no apparent connection to the original belief – so for example a believer in the Moon landings being a hoax might also come to be a sceptic about vaccination. People who dipped into the CM through following one idea would then find themselves exposed to and becoming interested in other heterodox notions. They would also make many personal contacts and this was one way that organised groups combining several of these ideas would come into being as the cults Campbell was interested in.

In concrete terms the CM is the people who hold the heterodox beliefs (or are interested in them) plus the physical spaces and means of communication through which they interact with each other and through which the ideas are spread and diffused. At one time that meant things like obscure small press or specialist press books, pamphlets, and magazines or journals, bookstores and other meeting places, organisations, clubs, and meetings or events (often informal). Today it means also or primarily online media such as discussion boards, video sharing sites and channels, social media, and personal or group connections through the internet.

Why though does this matter? A common explanation for the phenomenon described is that the actual people involved are simply nuts. In other words, in every society there are a number of people who are predisposed to believe and accept things that the majority regard as bizarre or even insane. 

The evidence however does not support this. People who are part of the CM (i.e. people who hold the beliefs) do not have a distinctive psychological profile. Moreover, the size of the CM (in terms of the number of people who are involved in it and its geographical and institutional reach) varies considerably over time which would not be true if it reflects nothing more than a specific psychological predisposition. So we are dealing with an important and variable social phenomenon. 

One reason why it matters is that the boundaries of the CM are permeable - it is not clearly distinct from the orthodox mainstream in a fixed or permanent way. Ideas, symbols, and even ways of life can move in both directions between the orthodox mainstream and the counterculture of the CM. One of Campbell’s main arguments was that although there was little formal connection, mainstream organisations such as established churches could draw upon the ideas that were being produced in the cultic milieu and make use of them or incorporate them.

Sometimes a whole body or wider system of ideas will move from fringe and countercultural status to being part of the mainstream conversation. That does not necessarily mean that they become widely accepted; they may still be intensely controversial. The point is that they are taken seriously and engaged with by others where before they were dismissed or ignored. When an idea has not made this movement across the semi-permeable barrier between the mainstream and the CM the only effective way of discovering or exploring it is to visit or move into that milieu. 

Once an idea has made the transition that is no longer true – one can come across it in normal discourse. One contemporary example of this is radical theories about the nature of money. For many years these were seen as being classic cranky ideas and were often associated with other ideas of that kind such as conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and unorthodox politics. 

Now, under the guise of Modern Monetary Theory these ideas (or an example of them) have left the CM and entered the academic and political mainstream. They are still very controversial and rejected by most but they are taken seriously and engaged with by critics. As ideas pass out of the CM and into the mainstream they shed the associations with other fringe notions that they had before so now you would not expect an advocate of MMT to also hold fringe beliefs about science or history. Another example is vegetarianism or veganism. These are now mainstream ideas held by many people. At one time though they were very much part of the CM and exponents would often believe in other ideas that have not transitioned, such as spiritualism and anti-systemic politics.

The mirror image of that process is movement in the opposite direction, from an accepted and debated idea in the main public and intellectual argument to one found only in the counterculture of the CM. The big examples of this are fascism and ideas such as racist theory and eugenics which were controversial but part of the main conversation before World War II and which became definitively part of the milieu after 1945. As this happened they came to be associated with other ideas in that milieu, such as theories about ancient alien civilisations visiting earth, flying saucers, and lost or suppressed technologies.  Here we can observe an interesting process at work. 

Fascism, and particularly Nazism, were to a great degree inspired by ideas that had moved out of the cultic milieu at the end of the nineteenth century (such as ariosophism and occult neo-paganism) so that set of political ideas moved from the counterculture to the mainstream and then back. Ideas such as ‘racial science’ and eugenics however had been part of the main conversation for many years before World War I and so only moved across the barrier once, after 1945. 

What this means of course is that beliefs that are part of the mainstream or even widespread can gradually slip into the strange subword of the CM. How though can you tell if a set of ideas and principles that you subscribe to yourself is in danger of suffering that fate? The main warning sign is to discover that many of the people who share your views on one issue also have beliefs that are clearly outside the mainstream discourse and which you regard as bizarre or outright bonkers, such as conspiracy theories or fringe science/anti-science propositions such as opposition to vaccinations. 

If you find that the number of clicks it takes to go from online sites expressing your views to ones with utterly fringe ones is never more than three then that is a bad sign. A disturbing realisation is that this process is clearly happening to parts of the contemporary libertarian movement. That is bad enough but the really alarming reality is that this phenomenon is happening elsewhere in the political spectrum as well - in many ideologies right now there is a clear movement towards a kind of subculture of radical dissent from many widely held theories and well established facts.

Right now the size and influence of the CM is growing. Ever more people subscribe to fringe beliefs and the availability of the kinds of ideas that circulate in the cultic counterculture has increased dramatically. This has happened before, notably in the period between roughly 1890 and 1930. 

Colin Campbell’s original model has been used to explain contemporary phenomena, above all the persistence and growth of radical right collectivist ideas, as well as radical left ones and other movements such as Islamism. The best known example of this was a 2002 collection of essays entitled “The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalization” edited by Jeffrey Kaplan and Helene Loow. Campbell himself was critical of this, arguing that straightforward radical politics was not itself part of the wider counterculture of cultic beliefs. 

However, many of the contemporary radical right movements do in fact also subscribe to or are associated with other ideas that are clearly part of the CM, so he is being too cautious here. However as such ideas start to gain purchase in the mainstream (as they clearly are doing) we should expect them to become much less associated with things such as fringe science or ‘alternative history’ for example.

Economics can help explain why the size and influence of the cultic milieu is increasing now and grew in the earlier period. (Campbell himself thought it was a response to the ‘disenchantment of the world’ and loss of transcendent meaning brought about by modernity - hence the ‘secularisation’ in his original title). 

For economists a clear factor is technological and economic developments that make it less costly to both spread ideas and information and to discover them, even when people holding those ideas do not have access to the dominant modes of communication. In the late nineteenth century cheap printing did this, along with the telegraph and telephone. By contrast the dominant communications technologies of the twentieth century (radio and television) did not because it was more difficult for proponents of non-mainstream ideas to use them. 

Today social media and the internet are playing the same role as cheap printing but on an even larger scale (because the cost reductions are greater). Economic history also suggests that a growth of the cultic counterculture is a response not to secularization but to the social disruption brought about by episodes of rapid innovation (“all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profane,” as Marx and Engels put it). 

Such episodes lead to a feeling for many people of social disconnection and displacement and bring what are seen as serious social costs. Ideas that reject received opinion then become attractive to many people as well as more accessible.

The notion of the cultic milieu helps explain many aspects of today’s politics, such as the rise of movements like the alt-right, and the growth of fringe beliefs across the ideological spectrum. When combined with economics we also get a better understanding of why this is happening right now. History suggests that in time the process will stop and, while the cultic milieu will still exist, the membrane between it and the mainstream will become again much less permeable.

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Stephen Davies

Dr Steve Davies, a Senior Fellow at AIER,  is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).