From the Series: The Psychedelic Revival
Psychedelics catalyze the invention of better forms of life, imaginary and real. That was not just the hope of the 1960s counterculture but also of the scientists and activists who have paved the way for the current renaissance of hallucinogen research. But what counts as a better form of life?
Today, the classmate who gave me my first LSD trip for my eighteenth birthday does what he can to limit social inclusion of immigrants in Germany. He came to represent the far-right populist party Alternative für Deutschland in the parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia. Consciousness expansion and rightist thought have never been mutually exclusive and they are currently reconnecting.
The revival of psychedelic science since the 1990s was defined by a decisive break with the vision of a counterculture. In 1986, the U.S.-American Rick Doblin founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to bring psychedelics and empathogens to the mainstream of science and society (Langlitz 2012, 38–44).
In a medicalized society, Doblin was looking for an application that would be especially appealing to some of the groups most hostile to psychedelics. As policemen and soldiers are especially prone to experience traumatic events, MAPS focused on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Shroder 2014). The first clinical studies proved so successful that, in 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared this treatment a “breakthrough therapy.”
But pharmaceutical trials are costly and NGOs like MAPS do not have the means of pharmaceutical corporations. In February 2018, support came from an unexpected side: Rebekah Mercer, a key benefactor of Breitbart News and one of the strongest financial supporters of Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign, donated $1 million to MAPS. Under her watch, Breitbart’s executive chairman Steve Bannon had published a favorable report about MDMA therapy (Church 2017). Iraq veteran Jon Lubecky had told both Bannon and Mercer about his successful treatment of his PTSD with Ecstasy. Instead of committing further suicide attempts, he had found new meaning in life and had become engaged in the 2016 presidential campaign of libertarian conservative Rand Paul.
Intellectuals of the alt-right counterculture have also grown interested in psychedelics. The traditionalist magazine TYR: Myth, Culture, Tradition—named after a Norse war god—publishes translations of the Italian fascist and mystic Julius Evola (whom Bannon likes to quote) and of Alain de Benoist, a founding father of the French Nouvelle Droite, next to articles by the German ethnopharmacologist and drug guru Christian Rätsch about the inebriating ingredients of Germanic mead and an interview with Timothy Leary’s coworker Ralph Metzner about shamanic traditions in early Europe.
It’s no coincidence that Annabell Lee, spouse of the TYR editor, translated the books of LSD inventor Albert Hofmann, into English. After World War II, the Swiss industrial chemist and nature mystic sought out rightist intellectuals in Germany. He exchanged letters with the Nazi constitutional lawyer and political philosopher Carl Schmitt and embarked on a psychedelic journey with the writer and “psychonaut” Ernst Jünger (who would coin the latter term) (Piper 2015). Lee also translated Jünger’s 1952 novel Visit to Godenholm, which casts the psychedelic experience in terms of Nordic mythology rather than the more customary Eastern mysticism.
If you’re still associating psychedelics with the psychedelic community that has grown out of the 1960s counterculture you might be surprised by these glimpses of an alternative psychedelic culture. Indeed, a recent study by the British neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris found the consumption of psychedelic drugs to correlate with leftist and liberal political orientations and openness toward other religions, ethnicities, and genders (Nour, Evans, and Carhart-Harris 2017). But the cultural history of psychedelics gives reason to doubt whether a pharmaceutical substance can predispose human beings to particular political orientations. When Israelis and Palestinians are offered pharmacological help to resolve their conflict with MDMA and ayahuasca, it is worth remembering that Hamas fighters have been reported to use Ecstasy as “go pills” for night missions and that the Jivaro and other Amazonian peoples have ingested hallucinogenic drugs to foster a warrior ethic and even to instill an urge to kill (Dobkin de Rios 1984, 213; Taylor 1993, 661; Langlitz 2012, 66; but see Kopenawa and Albert 2013). Among the more profound insights of Timothy Leary, George Litwin, and Ralph Metzner (1963) was that the effects of psychedelics does not only depend on these highly potent pharmaceuticals but also on the user’s attitude and the sociocultural context in which they are ingested.
As the project of mainstreaming the uses of psychedelic drugs is proving surprisingly successful, these substances also enter into forms of life that are very different from the ones that have fostered the revival. While liberal and left-leaning anthropologists might find this pluralism as disturbing as the (always imagined) psychedelic community, it’s a boon to the anthropology of psychedelics. Studied ethnographically, rightist psychedelia might teach us a great deal about the cultural plasticity of the relationship between human beings and these wondrous molecules.
Church, Nate. 2017. “FDA Labels MDMA a ‘Breakthrough Therapy’ for PTSD.” Breitbart News, August 20.
Dobkin de Rios, Marlene. 1984. Hallucinogens: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.
Kopenawa, Davi, and Bruce Albert. 2013. The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Langlitz, Nicolas. 2012. Neuropsychedelia. The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Leary, Timothy, George Litwin, and Ralph Metzner. 1963. “Reactions to Psilocybin Adminstered in a Supportive Environment.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 137, no. 6: 561–73.
Nour, Matthew M., Lisa Evans, and Robin L. Carhart-Harris. 2017. “Psychedelics, Personality and Political Perspectives.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 49, no. 3: 182–91.
Piper, Alan. 2015. Strange Drugs Make For Strange Bedfellows: Ernst Junger, Albert Hofmann and the Politics of Psychedelics. Portland, Ore.: Invisible College Publishing.
Shroder, Tom. 2014. Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal. New York: Penguin.
Taylor, Anne Christine. 1993. “Remembering to Forget: Identity, Mourning and Memory Among the Jivaro.” Man 28, no. 4: 653–78.