One of the strangest cultural phenomena to arise out of the 2016 election and its aftermath is the growing popularity, in far-Right circles, of a purportedly chiseled Twitter provocateur named Bronze Age Pervert. A self-proclaimed “Aspiring Nudist Bodybuilder. Free speech and anti-xenoestrogen activist” with about 20,000 Twitter followers to date, BAP (as he’s known) has managed to become an unlikely symbolic figurehead for powerful corners of the far-Right Internet. Back in 2017, for example, Curtis Yarvin, aka the Neo-reactionary philosopher Mencius Moldbug, used BAP’s name as part of an elaborate troll: telling The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray that BAP was, in fact, Moldbug’s point of contact for the White House.
“Apparently there’s a big underground movement of right-wing bodybuilders—thousands,” Yarvin told Gray. “Their plan is to surface spectacularly this April, in a choreographed flash demo on the Mall. They’ll be totally nude, but wearing MAGA hats. Goal is to intimidate Congress with pure masculine show of youth.”
Yarvin was almost certainly joking. Bronze Age Pervert’s account tends not towards the political but the aesthetic: #HandsomeThursdays consisting of images of sweat-glistening athletic young men of Nordic or Slavic extraction, or else promotions for BAP’s 2018 self-help book, Bronze Age Mindset, a Nietzschean paean to primordiality, written entirely in Internet patois. (“This is not a book of philosophy,” an early paragraph reads. “It is exhortation. . . . In [Heraclitus’s] day many gods, clove-footed satyr, and other things showed themselves to men in dreams. [Now] Spiritually your insides are all wet, and there’s a huge hole through where monstrous powers are fucking your brain, letting loose all your life and power of focus.”)
But Yarvin was on to something. His hat-tip to BAP worked as a joke precisely because, despite the high camp of his trolling persona, BAP, and the brand of mythic atavism he claims to represent, is a symbolically resonant figurehead for the reactionary, post-Nietzschean nostalgia that has come to define so much of anti-progressive culture. For a loosely affiliated coterie of men in particular, this kind of mythic atavism—a blend of Nietzschean strength-fetishization, pagan imagery, anti-civilizational superstition, and biological materialism—has become a new defining creed.
The fascination itself isn’t new, of course. From Nietzsche onwards, fetishizing an imagined, unspecified, agrarian past has been an integral part of reactionary discourse. Masculine human nature—the fundamentally heroic telos of the warrior—has been suppressed by the feminizing force of a “sclerotic” civilization: at once bloodless and suspiciously, femininely fecund. For Nietzsche, that offending force was Christianity, with its “slave morality” and subversive, unnatural valorization of weakness. Christianity was a religion of disingenuity, one in which “impotence which doesn’t retaliate is being turned into ‘goodness’; timid baseness is being turned into ‘humility’; submission to people one hates is being turned into ‘obedience.’”
So too the Italian modernist-occultist writer Julius Evola, whose 1934 Revolt Against the Modern World doubles as the Ur-text of this trend. For both men, the abandonment of a fundamental, biologically determined caste system—seen as the hallmark of these “modern” religions—led inexorably to moral and spiritual decay. “The West has lost the sense of command and obedience,” bemoaned Evola in an earlier work, Pagan Imperialism. “It has lost the sense of Action and of Contemplation. It has lost the sense of hierarchy, of spiritual power, of man-Gods. It no longer knows nature. It is no longer, for Western man, a living body made of symbols, of Gods and ritual gestures.”
Christianity is at the root of the evil that has corrupted the West…in its frenetic subversion of every hierarchy, in its exaltation of the weak, the disinherited, those without lineage and without tradition; in its call to “love,” to “believe,” and to yield; in its rancor toward everything that is force, self-sufficiency, knowledge, and aristocracy; in its intolerant and proselytizing fanaticism, Christianity poisoned the greatness of the Roman Empire. Enemy of itself and of the world, this dark and barbarous wave remains the principal cause of the West’s decline.
For Evola and Nietzsche alike, the absence of violence—and specifically hierarchical violence—could not end in anything other than nihilism. An enchanted world was necessarily a world of bloodlust.
Today, however, it is not Christianity, or “Christian civilization,” that fuels accusations of degeneration, but rather one of its most frequent opponents: social justice activism. Modern atavists claim that the slippery slope of feminism, political correctness, moral relativism, “woke” culture, and offense obsession that have led to a kind of “slave morality”—or “cuck morality,” to use a favorite alt-right slur. Nevertheless, the conclusion is the same: Modern men are bereft of the warrior identity that both biological determinism and Jungian archetype have laid out for them. Only through a re-appropriation of that primal strength can men re-enchant a desiccated, secular, bourgeois world of office jobs and “wage cuckery.”
In his Bronze Age Mindset, for example, BAP derides the specters of progressivism, using language and imagery that echoes Nietzsche and Evola’s critiques of Christianity. “Of all the things that you blame for the decrepit times we live in, feminism and the ‘liberation’ of women is both the proximate and the ultimate cause. Nothing so ridiculous as the liberation of women has ever been attempted in the history of mankind.” He has even stronger words for social justice: a “disgusting parasitism, dressed up in rags of words so worn-out and pee-stained even their defenders are sick of the smell. . . . they say it half-mouthed and pleading: just look at them during the Occupy rallies, hoping to siphon off respect.” Those in sympathy with modern society’s liberal goals are mere, flaccid “bugmen.”
BAP may be mythic atavism’s most obvious mouthpiece, but he’s hardly the only one. Examples of this neo-Nietzscheanism can be found more broadly in extreme corners of the Internet Right—among the men’s rights activists and r/Redpilled set, with their twinned obsession with weight lifting, paleo diets, and masculine phrenology—as well as in relatively mainstream figures like Jordan Peterson, the closest thing reactionary atavism has to a guru, who preach the gospel of evolutionary masculinity as a corrective to political correctness.
And it is a gospel. At its core, contemporary reactionary atavism is a religious crisis: a search for foundational meaning in a world its adherents decry as postmodern, relativist, and under the yoke of PC doublespeak, a world where not even pronouns can be relied upon. It is an attempt to find, in the primordial and often heavily gendered myths of conflict, war, order and chaos, heroes and damsels, something immutable about the human condition. Our animal nature—that which “civilization” decries (or, as the case may be, cancels)—is the closest thing we have to an immortal soul. Civilization may have made milksops of us all, this new good news tells us, but we can be animals.
This shared gospel of atavism may not have a God per se, but it blends the tropes of pagan myth with biological materialism, such that chaos and Nature become one. “Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection,” writes Peterson in one telling paragraph in his self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. “It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, ‘No!’ For the men, that’s a direct encounter with chaos.”
Temporal longevity and teleology are thus conflated. Something that is old—encoded into our DNA—becomes, implicitly, good. “The longer a feature has existed,” Peterson writes in 12 Rules, “the more time it has had to be selected—and to shape life. It does not matter whether that feature is physical and biological or social and cultural. All that matters, from a Darwinian perspective, is permanence. . . . The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism. . . . It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy. . . . it’s not even a human creation. . . . it is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment.”
Peterson’s materialism is, itself, quasi-religious: a search for something at once authentic and ontologically reliable. Civilizations may come and go; language (and those pesky gender pronouns) may shift, but fundamentally there is a Big Something that underpins the meaningfulness and coherence of existence. That human beings share in the dominance hierarchies that define Peterson’s favorite example, the lobster, isn’t just a lucky fact of nature but a theological etiology: an origin story that gives us an identity that can transcend the kaleidoscopic uncertainty of a postmodern age.
The battle for survival—the story of animal evolution, of dominance hierarchies, of female sexual selection, of a brutal Darwinian world—becomes our new Genesis: In Peterson’s world, we are all iterations of the Babylonian king-God Marduk (whom Peterson regularly cites in his lectures), defeating the watery powers of the nature-goddess Tiamat. It’s telling that this kind of atavism has taken hold most strongly among young, libertarian or right-leaning atheists. While Jordan Peterson has vaguely hinted at a Christian affiliation, and individual members of the manosphere, such as Return of Kings’ Roosh V (Daryush Valizadeh), have embraced Neo-traditionalist Christianity, the contours of the reactionary internet tend toward the secular—or at least, the spiritual-but-not-religious.
It’s true that atavism has even been absorbed into many Trumpist evangelical circles as a syncretic blend of Nietzscheanism and muscular Christianity; Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, has tweeted that “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys,’” because although “they might make great Christian leaders. . . . the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!” At its core, however, atavism is symbolically pagan: a veneration both of pure, brutish power and of a chthonic Nature that rewards blood sacrifice.
Here we see an uncanny mirror image of the rise of progressive occultism. Modern (explicit) neo-pagan practice—itself among the fastest-growing religious movements in America—has become increasingly intertwined with progressive values. Those who actually worship, say, the Greco-Roman gods are more likely to be found at an abortion rally than in Bronze Age Pervert’s Twitter mentions. (Hell, even the self-proclaimed religion-cum-performance-art-group Satanic Temple was rocked by internet dissent because—among other reasons—members were concerned about the lack of representation of women and people of color in leadership). Contemporary “self-care” culture—with its essential oils, its tarot cards, and its sage cleansing—often serves as the spiritualized branch of the social justice movement. (Ironically, many of these movements see within Christianity the very same dominance hierarchies and patriarchies of which Nietzsche and Evola were so fond. )
Reactionary atavism, by contrast, appeals mostly to men who feel alienated both by the dictates of traditional organized religion and by progressive spirituality. It’s the paleo answer to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire.
The comparison isn’t just metaphorical, either: the paleo supplements sold as “Super Male Vitality” by, for example, the radio personality and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of InfoWars, are all but chemically identical to the “Sex Dust” sold by Amanda Chantal Bacon through Goop.
In his recent book Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, Steven Smith identifies the fundamental tension of Western culture as being a battle between the “pagans”—the inheritors of Classical ideas about Nature being inherently sacred—and Christians, who look for a transcendent Good outside the world.
But today, for the first time, the coming culture wars may not be fought between Christians and pagans. As more and more Americans on both sides of the political aisle leave organized religion, we may see the next culture war skirmish fought between two different kinds of pagan, each of whom believes that it is the heroic underdog: the destroyer of a civilization that is either too masculine, or too feminine, for its own good.