The perversion of utopia
In their new book, Malignant Narcissism and Power: A Psychodynamic Exploration of Madness and Leadership, Charles Zeiders and Peter Devlin. In this chapter, republished with kind permission of publishers Routledge, Peter Devlin begins by considering malignant narcissist leaders and the transcendental.
Tyranny has been written about since the beginning of recorded history. The earliest recorded story is about a tyrant named Gilgamesh, who was a legendary Sumerian king and the first epic hero in world literature. Tyrants are as diverse as humanity, but they always rule – whether group, sect, or nation state – with absolute power.
In his book Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror (2016), Waller Newell distinguishes between three types of tyranny: the garden variety, the reformer, and the millenarian. The garden variety tyrants seek power for personal gain. They are transactional. They exploit a nation (or a human being) for money, sexual pleasure, and shiny objects. The reformers, on the other hand, seek power to change their nation or society. They engage in large building projects, improve schools, and rarely use violence wantonly. Kemal Ataturk might be a prototypical reform tyrant. Then, there is the millenarian tyrant. Newell believes they are a modern phenomenon. For Newell, the ascendency of the millenarian tyrant begins with the French Revolution. Garden variety and reformer tyrants existed before the French Revolution and continue to resurface, but with the rise of Robespierre and the Jacobins a new form of tyranny appeared.
Newell describes this new form of tyranny as characterized by the willingness of a leader to commit mass murder in the service of a utopian vision. It is “driven by a utopian aim in which society is to be transformed from being unjust, materialistic, and selfish in the present to being spiritually pure, selfless, and communal in the future” (Newell, 2016, p. 264). These leaders also espouse an egalitarian reorganization of society, have no regard for individual liberty, and pit themselves against an outside enemy. They are willing to sacrifice hundreds, thousands, or even millions to achieve a New Jerusalem or a worker’s paradise.
This description is also mirrored by Daniel Chirot in his book Modern Tyrants (1994). He writes that modern dictators like Mao, Hitler, and Stalin were worshipped “in ways no mortal has been since the great religious prophets of the past, Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed” (Chirot, 1994, p. 2). These leaders believed they had a profound understanding of the human condition and that only they could free humanity from human suffering and the vicissitudes of existence. They believed they could radically upend social norms and societies and remake them. Eric Hoffer characterized the modern millenarian tyrant as possessing:
audacity and a joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials); unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness; a recognition that the innermost craving is for communion and that there can never be too much of it; a capacity for winning and upholding the utmost loyalty of a group.
Hoffer, 1964, p. 105
It is important to acknowledge that these tyrants – addressed later in this chapter as malignant narcissist leaders (MNLs) – have altered the course of global history. The life of Jan of Leiden (perhaps the prototype of the modern tyrant) resembles the trajectory of many charismatic MNLs who were adrift before rising to pre-eminence. In this chapter, I analyze his rise and fall as well as that of Antônio Conselheiro, Adolf Hitler, David Koresh, Credonia Mwerinde, and Hong Xiuquan.
It is almost too easy to ignore their humanity and portray them with the sobriquet “evil” – easy because their pathology is so destructive. In his book On Evil (2010), Terry Eagleton writes that evil is the antipode of the human bonds of mutuality and tenderness. According to Eagleton, it is, in fact, anti-human (Eagleton, 2010). Nevertheless, the leaders portrayed throughout this chapter are deeply human even though their humanity is bent. A better word for their pathology would be agony. Although they inflict suffering on others, they too suffer deeply. Disavowing their humanity and portraying them as demons only inflates the MNL beyond the realm of the merely human. If they are seen as they truly are – pathetic, dependent, stunted, pompous, and cruel – then the nimbus of sacredness around them attributed by their followers disappears.
The rise of the modern tyrant
Newell believed this new form of tyranny deserved to be classified as a “category of psychology” (Newell, 2016, p. 24). This new category manifests in adulthood as cluster B diagnoses such as narcissism and antisocial personality. Their combination or comorbidity is often called malignant narcissism (Fromm, 1964). It has been widely written – beginning with Fromm and Kernberg – that these men and women lack empathy; have bloated, grandiose egos; predate upon other human beings; and demand adulation. They are often unaware that their grandiosity is a mask for self-loathing, self-doubt, and fear. Their extreme narcissism is like air blown into a balloon. It inflates a shriveled self. We can only guess that these malignant narcissist leaders (MNLs) had childhoods that were emotionally and developmentally stunted, and that the malignant narcissism they enacted was rooted in this trauma and deprivation.
MNLs are also charismatic. In their case, this charisma means they are special, at least to their followers, and they exist separate from the mundane and ordinary human beings. According to Max Weber (1968), who first defined the concept of charisma, the charismatic leader embodies the transcendental and appears to his or her followers as chosen by God or history to achieve a millenarian plan. They are a god or god’s authority on earth. It is this spiritual authority that cements the millenarian leader’s authority over their followers. It feeds their need for adulation. It also allows them to place the mask of God over their self-doubt and psychic chaos.
The MNL often appears within millenarian or transcendental movements. Once they establish themselves as leaders of the movement, they inspire followers to surrender themselves to the leader’s millenarian plans. This begins a profoundly deep and disturbing relationship. The followers are psychically eaten by the MNL; they surrender and lose their identities and become players in the leader’s psychic enactment of a personal pathology.
Jan of Leiden
Jan of Leiden (also known as Jan Beukels or Brockelson) was born into poverty and out-of-wedlock. He had artistic aspirations as an actor and dramatist. Before he arrived in Munster, he had drifted between trades, although he is best known as a tailor. He was a gifted orator who held radical millenarian beliefs. But, more importantly, when he had his moment to lead, he ruled as a brutal tyrant who wielded a transcendental belief system like a hammer (Arthur, 1999). Under Jan of Leiden’s reign, a new category of leadership, perhaps embryonic, appeared. It is easy to dismiss Jan of Leiden as mad, as writers and pamphleteers did in the 16th century. But Jan may well be the progenitor of a new kind of leader: one with authority rooted in transcendentalism (millenarianism) and who rules through totalistic deindividuation and terror. Jan’s authoritarian reign was not the New Jerusalem that Anabaptist preachers and theologians originally envisioned.
In 1535, he declared himself King of the World in the town of Munster, an independent German principality in the province of Westphalia and just north of Cologne. At the time, Jan was the leader of the town of Munster, or, rather, the Anabaptist movement within the walls of the town. The Anabaptists were under siege, and they had expelled the bishop, all Catholics, and all Lutherans. They had established leadership under first Jan Matthys and then Jan of Leiden. The town was surrounded by mercenaries loyal to Franz Von Waldeck, the ousted Catholic bishop of Munster who wanted his city returned to him.
The Anabaptist movement had begun years earlier during the Protestant revolt. Although they lacked a unitary theology, they shared several practices and beliefs within their sect. Anabaptists believed that the conversion and baptism to Christian belief must be undertaken in adulthood when an individual is old enough to decide. They were literalists who believed in the primacy of the New Testament over ecclesiastical tradition and allegiance to the state. This belief incited Luther, Zwingli, and many other Protestant leaders to urge genocide against the Anabaptists. Anabaptists had an egalitarian or communal streak. All types of work, whether peasant, artisan, or merchant, served God. Therefore, class distinctions should be eradicated. They were filled with apocalyptic fervor because the New Jerusalem was imminent. The movement began in the wake of the German Peasant’s War of the 1520s, which might have jaded the Anabaptists against any demand to a higher earthly authority (Naphy, 2011).
By the time Jan led the Munster Anabaptists, many of the Anabaptist leaders had been executed or, more rarely, imprisoned. In 1529, at the Diet of Speyer, both Catholics and Protestant leaders had declared genocide against all Anabaptists. This triggered relentless, sadistic persecution of the Anabaptists and their leaders by both Catholics and other Protestants alike. Itinerant, messianic, Anabaptist prophets became prominent. One such prophet, Verna Baumann who was a servant in northeastern Switzerland, declared herself to be Jesus Christ.
Many people flocked to see her, confessing their sins; but then “Verena herself told the people that she was to bear the Anti-Christ, but shortly afterward she said she was to bear the child mentioned in Revelation 12. She called herself at one moment the great whore of Babylon, but immediately afterward the living Son of God. She also appeared naked in front of the crowd and reproved them for having lewd ideas.” Waite, 2007, p. 31
Into this bloody and dire moment stepped Jan of Leiden. Before his ascension to his throne, his predecessor was the Dutch baker and Anabaptist Savonarola, Jan Matthys. Jan of Leiden was one of Matthys’ aide de camps. Under Matthys, the Anabaptists burned books and paintings – including the paintings of the Westphalian school – in bonfires and extinguished them forever. On Easter Sunday, Mathys charged on horseback against Bishop Von Waldeck’s mercenary army in the belief that God would protect him and reward him in battle. He and 12 disciples who rode with him were slaughtered and dismembered. Matthys’ head was impaled on a pike and his genitals were nailed to one of Munster’s gates.
Jan of Leiden quickly declared himself leader before a crowd outside St. Paul’s Cathedral with a Marc Antony-like oration: “God willed that Matthys should die. . . . His time had come, and God has let him die. . . . God shall raise up unto us another prophet who shall be greater and higher than was even Jan Matthys” (Friedrich, 1986, p. 168). When “a murmur from protest arose from the crowd” Jan retorted
Shame on you, that you murmur against the ordinance of the Heavenly Father! Though you were all to join together to oppose me, I shall still reign, not only of this town but over the whole world, for the Father will have it so; and my kingdom which begins now shall endure and know no downfall!
Cohn, 1970, p. 272
Jan dismissed the elected city council and appointed 12 elders (after the 12 tribes of Israel) to sanction his new laws. He instituted a new, tightly controlled regime with extreme consequences for not following its mandates. In a city besieged and on the brink of famine, Jan rode a white horse through the narrow, cobbled streets to his throne in a procession of courtiers and wives. The Munster craftsmen smelt Jan a gold crown, gold medallions, a gold scepter, and a gold sword sheath and belt, and built him a throne. He “decreed the death penalty not only for murder and sedition, but for blasphemy, spreading scandal, adultery, avarice, fraud, lying, criticizing one’s parents, or even complaining” (Friedrich, 1986, p. 169).
A rebel who had managed to escape was torn from the arms of his wife and children and quartered, still alive, with halberds. The executions were performed in small doses so that the pedagogic effect would be more lasting. Each day ten rebels were killed. For weeks, the victims’ cries of pain echoed through the city.
Orsini, 2011, p. 164
He created Commissars and a Chekha (i.e., secret police) to crush dissent. He divided these men and assigned them different sections of the city, the New Jerusalem, a phrase used by the prophet Ezekiel that refers to a messianic kingdom where the Holy Temple will be rebuilt.
Terror, long a familiar feature of life in the New Jerusalem, was intensified under Bockleson’s [Jan of Leiden’s] reign. Within a few days of his proclamation of the monarchy . . . all who persisted in sinning must be brought before the king and sentenced to death. They would be extirpated from the Chosen People, their very memory would be blotted out, their souls would find no mercy beyond the grave.
Cohn, 1970, p. 275
As king, Jan also held the office of public executioner and sometimes beheaded those who he deemed to have transgressed God’s law.
Terror was used as a method of subjugation. According to Norman Cohn, women were the first Munster citizens to be executed for crimes against the New Jerusalem. These crimes (e.g., ridiculing a preacher or denying a husband sexual intercourse) seemed to enforce male (or more specifically Jan’s) domination. Jan also shrewdly chose bodyguards from men who had drifted into Munster and had little or no relationship with Munster citizens. These bodyguards were free to execute anyone they wished. Every citizen of Munster was a potential victim of his regime.
This terror and paranoia was a forerunner of Stalin’s more contemporary “Great Terror” and Mao’s “Red Terror.” Jan of Leiden may be a historical avatar for the modern totalitarian state. His rule parallels the later subjugation methods of both cult and totalitarian leaders. He sought a radical reorganization of society. The Anabaptists had always held strict puritanical beliefs on sex. Infidelity was a capital offense in Munster before Jan came to power. However, once Jan became leader of Munster, he declared that every citizen must be married and decreed polygamy not just legal but a law every citizen must obey.
Sexual experimentation wasn’t unique amongst religious sects. In the early 15th century, a sect that was an offshoot of the Taborite movement “declared the chaste were unworthy to enter their messianic Kingdom.” They practiced free love, and chose to be naked in order to be in a state of innocence (Cohn, 1970, p. 220). Unlike this neo-Adamite sect, the polygamy in Munster was governed by a leader and it reveals Jan’s totalistic control of Munster’s citizens, even their deepest intimacies. Jan had one of his acolytes, a pamphleteer and would-be prophet, decree polygamy a law that everyone in Munster must accept. When a blacksmith named Heinrich Mollenbecke led a revolt against this decree, Jan had the rebels tortured and beheaded. Jan himself married 16 young women, including the former wife of Jan Matthys, the purportedly beautiful Divara, whom Jan had anointed his queen.
Then there was Jan’s dramatic performances of his transcendental powers and use of oratory as a political tool. Cohn and others write that Jan was extraordinarily attractive, at least to people in the 16th century, and he was remarkably eloquent. He created outdoor show pieces and parades that demonstrated his power. On one occasion, he demanded the citizens of Munster gather in the cathedral square if they heard three trumpets. The trumpets sounded, blown by Jan’s own acolyte Dusentshur. The citizens gathered. And according to Dusentshur’s prophecy (though he was controlled by Jan), the men of Munster would have supernatural powers and the citizens of Munster would march outside the city gates and slaughter the Bishop’s mercenary army. Instead, Jan appeared surrounded by his court. He stated that the gathering was a loyalty test, and it probably was. It was also a visual means of displaying his power. Other malignant narcissist tyrants have used gatherings, rallies, and parades as methods to assert their power. Jan’s gifts for dramatic spectacle are evocative of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films of the 1930s or Mussolini upon a horse raising his arm in the Roman salute.
Jan’s reign of terror ended when two dissidents, fearful of their fate in Jan’s bloody, famine-stricken New Jerusalem, slipped away and fled to join the Bishop’s mercenaries. They informed the Bishop and his generals of weaknesses in Munster’s walls. The mercenaries stormed one of these weak spots and eventually Munster itself. Queen Divara was beheaded and Jan was “attached to a pole by an iron-spiked collar, his body was ripped with red-hot tongs for the space of an hour. He died after his heart was pierced with a red-hot dagger” (Orsini, 2011, p. 165).
Is it appropriate to compare Jan of Leiden with other MNLs? Or to portray him as a prototype for our contemporary cult leaders and dictators? Aren’t there significant historical, cultural, and societal differences between them? Or, can’t they all be described as irrational and mad and then tossed into the dustbin of history? I argue that Munster’s fall, as well as Jan’s, parallels the fate of other tragic and disastrous millenarian movements. There have even been sieges that resemble Munster’s extraordinary moment in European History and there have been leaders who unmistakably resemble Jan. Much has been written about these movements and their leaders, but less has been written about the similarities these leaders share and their followers’ intense devotion to them.
If Hong Xiuquan never existed, China – and the world for that matter – might be dramatically different. Hong Xiuquan, leader and prophet of the Taiping Rebellion, in which millions of Chinese perished, failed the notoriously difficult imperial exams numerous times. In the aftermath of one of these failures, he declared himself the brother of Jesus Christ and proceeded to establish in modern-day Nanking, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (Platt, 2012). Hong Xiuquan followed a similar path to that of Jan of Leiden, except on a more epic scale.
Hong Xiuquan was a crestfallen village schoolteacher when he failed his final attempt at the imperial exams, which had only a 1 percent passing rate. He subsequently began preaching a theology that “pursued a land reform program that represents the most radically egalitarian in recorded history” while he simultaneously and contradictorily “declared himself the emperor of the Taiping” (Landes, 2011, p. 204).
Like Jan of Leiden, Hong attempted to establish a theocracy with strict laws that were antipodal to the existing social order. In Hong Xiuquan’s Heavenly City, men and women – even married couples – lived separately and sex of any kind was prohibited. This prohibition did not apply to Hong, however, who had a harem of concubines living with him in his palace.
But his millenarian vision of a Heavenly Kingdom included Hong as a member of the Heavenly Family and brother to Jesus, posing a major threat to the Qing Dynasty. It led to an army from the Qing Dynasty besieging and destroying Taiping in 1864. Approximately 30 million people perished during Hong Xiuquan’s rebellion – more than any rebellion in human history and a number equivalent to the population of the United States in 1860.
At the end of the 19th century, an event similar to the siege and downfall of Munster occurred in Brazil. An itinerant prophet, Antônio Conselheiro (or “the Counselor”), established a millenarian religious community that he called Canudos in northern Bahai, a rural region of Brazil still known for hardship and poverty. Conselheiro preached “that same extravagant millenarianism, the same dread of the Anti-Christ’s appearing amid the universal wreckage of life. The nearing of the end of the world” (Da Cunha, 1944, p. 127).
Nevertheless, in some ways Conselheiro was Jan of Leiden’s antithesis. In Rebellion in the Backlands, Euclides da Cuhna’s definitive book documenting the siege at Canudos, he portrayed Conselheiro as a
somber anchorite with hair down to his shoulders, a long tangle beard, an emaciated face, and piercing eyes, a monstrous being clad in a blue canvas . . . his withered epidermis was as wrinkled as an old broken and trampled over his lifeless flesh.
Da Cunha, 1944, pp. 127–131
Unlike Jan of Leiden, whose Lucullan lifestyle continued to the final demise of Munster, Conselheiro reportedly starved himself to death because of the brutal misery of the defenders of Canudos. In the aftermath of the downfall of Canudos, Brazilian soldiers found his emaciated body.
And yet, Jan and Conselheiro are also cut of the same cloth. Both men were raised in harsh poverty and lost one of their parents. Both men were autodidacts. Both men were charismatic orators. Both men preached and prophesized a millenarian theology that was also critical of the ruling state. Both men established radical communities that were opposed to the extant social order. Both men were skilled in governing multitudes of followers.
However, unlike Jan who was sadistically violent to his followers, Conselheiro turned violence inward. According to da Cunha’s account, Conselheiro tortured himself with harshirts and fasts (Da Cunha, 1944). This masochism makes Conselheiro unique amongst this type of leader, but, but still placed under the rubric of malignant narcissism. Kernberg argued that masochism happens in a therapeutic setting when a narcissist’s fantasy of grandiosity is challenged. Masochism gives the narcissist a feeling of restored power and control and triumph over others for they alone inflict pain upon themselves (Kernberg, 1993). A human being must have extraordinary power in order to inflict such pain upon themselves.
Another millenarian leader, Adolf Hitler, shared common traits with Jan of Leiden and Conselheiro. Anthony Arthur notes in The Tailor King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster that Jan of Leiden and Adolf Hitler share biographical similarities and traits. They were charismatic orators, antinomian thinkers, and failed artists. Furthermore, they required
the indoctrination of children through early education and military training; the substitution of the group for the individual and the family in terms of loyalty and obligation; the inclusion of the chosen and the exclusion of the rest; elaborate ceremonies, marches, and public gatherings; symbols and slogans; and abrupt promotions and demotions, appearances and disappearances.
Arthur, 1999, Chapter 13
In his compelling book Explaining Hitler (1998), Ron Rosenbaum writes that Hitler invokes an archetype in our culture for human evil. But the genocidal scale of Hitler’s millenarian actions sprang from a man who was corporeal and mortal. Rosenbaum makes this point with the photograph on the cover of his book: a baby picture of Adolf Hitler. Even this man who is now a universal symbol of evil began life like any other human being.
In 1993, David Koresh’s destructive life ended on a smaller scale than that of Hong Xiuquan. Koresh also struggled and drifted before claiming special prophetic powers. He too was a gifted orator and was sexually profligate with his followers, even accused of statutory rape. He demanded chastity amongst his male acolytes and annulled marriages while he had sex with his female followers. He named his harem “The House of David,” and female members who became pregnant left the father’s name blank on forms (Newport, 2006).
The details of his childhood are murky. He claimed to have been sexually abused and that his mother was a prostitute (his mother, Bonnie Haldemann, denies this). He dropped out of school in the eleventh grade because he had difficulty reading, possibly having dyslexia. He was an aspiring musician, played in rock bands, and failed at building a record label business. He joined and then became leader of a millenarian offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists. Like Jan of Leiden, Koresh’s leadership was preceded by the death of an older leader, Lois Roden.
The ATF and FBI’s 51-day siege at Waco ended in the immolation of Koresh and his followers. The subject of this siege is now part of American popular culture and narrated in a TV mini-series. His death follows in a long tradition of these deaths. At the end, the leader dies while under assault either at or near the end of their reign.
The largest mass suicide or murder by a religious movement occurred in 2000 and was perpetrated by a little-known Ugandan religious movement, The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, founded and led by Credonia Mwerinde. She had also drifted through life assuming many occupations, including as owner of a bar and brewer of banana beer. Ugandan authorities suspect that she poisoned her three brothers in order to inherit their property before having a religious epiphany. This epiphany occurred in a cave near her home. She envisioned that she directly spoke to the Virgin Mary who told her to spread the word of God. Standing at the entrance of the cave was a large megalith-like stone that Mwerinde claimed portrayed the Virgin Mary turning her back to a fallen world (Atuhaire, 2003). While in the cave, she reported Marian visions as well as visions of Jesus Christ.
Mwerinde’s millenarian movement – a sect of the Roman Catholic Church – was imbued with a mystical culture in which leaders and followers were given extravagant titles such as Mwerinde’s, Eykembeko kya Yuda Tadeo (The Building of Judas Thadeus). What is striking about Mwerinde is not so much her personal charisma, although she is described as flamboyant, but her domination of those who followed her. Her sobriquet was “The Programmer.” She designed an indoctrination program for followers that isolated them from their families and society. As Atuhaire writes in his book on the religious movement, The Ugandan Cult Tragedy (2003), entry into the movement was totalistic; followers sold all their possessions and cut familial ties. Mwerinde forbade sex between spouses, permitted followers one meal each day, and, at times, even forbade speech.
She, like Jan of Leiden, also promised her followers a spectacular event that would make the movement famous. Mwerinde and the upper echelon of the movement had the group prepare with a week-long feast for the end of the world, which was to occur December 31, 1999. When the end of the world proved to be another ordinary day, members began to openly question Mwerinde’s authority. Mwerinde responded to this affront to her authority by fomenting the murder/suicide of her followers. By March 2000, over a thousand followers had died by poison or immolation.
Utopia and its perversion
In his definitive book on millenarianism, The Pursuit of the Millenium, Norman Cohn writes that Jan of Leiden and his religious dystopia are a forerunner of more modern attempts to create radically alternative societies that are tied to the transcendental. This might be a French revolutionary’s egalitarian nation state, a Marxist utopia, an Aryan Elysium, or a Theocracy awaiting end times. Cohn argues that millenarianism only appears at specific moments when communities and kinship ties are torn.
When the siege of Munster took place in the 16th century, Christianity, which was the foundation for European society for hundreds of years, was fragmenting. In the 19th century, Western industrial society, spurred by the science of the Enlightenment, further disrupted traditional communities and culture not only in Europe, but throughout the world through imperialism and colonization. Urban life then became the dominant milieu for humankind and was, as described by writers like Frederic Engels in The Conditions of the Working-Class in England in 1844 (1987), brutal and impersonal. Social fragmentation became an even more pervasive phenomenon in the 20th century with the War to End All Wars, the economic calamity of the Depression, World War II, and the multitude of genocidal catastrophes. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1975), Hannah Arendt described this quickening fragmentation between the two world wars: “Every event had the finality of the last judgement, a judgement that was passed by neither God nor by the devil, but looked rather like the expression of some devil” (Arendt, 1975, p. 267).
In the latter 20th and now 21st centuries, social fragmentation and dislocation continued at a dizzying pace. In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler wrote: “Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are unprepared to cope with it” (Toffler, 1970, p. 12). The postmodern world economy dislocated human beings from each other and further splintered community. Human beings then yearned “for the security of togetherness and for a helping hand to count on in a moment of trouble” (Bauman, 2003, p. VIII).
Social chaos, fragmentation, and dislocation are the social conditions that the millenarian leader needs in order to thrive. When human communities and bonds sever, as they now have for most of global humanity, millenarian leaders may fill the vacuum. They offer a totalistic, communitarian, transcendental vision and ideology that attract followers who face “the uncanny frailty of human bonds, the feeling of insecurity that frailty inspires, and the conflicting desires that feeling prompts to tighten the bonds yet keep them loose” (Bauman, 2003, p. VIII).
The millenarian leader uses this anomie to prey upon the poor, the wealthy, and the bourgeois. They prey upon every race, class, and religion. Their followers can be anyone. Scientists made sarin gas for Shoko Asahara; Catholic priests were leaders in the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God; TV actresses recruited sex slaves for Keith Rainiere. Atuhaire sums up the follower psychology in the foreword to his book: “In a state of deprivation, worry, uncertainty, rejection and lies, an individual may easily be driven to extreme conditions of acceptance of an alternate route, no matter how ridiculous it might sound to the world around” (Atuhaire, 2003, p. VII).
Once the millenarian leader ascends to a leadership role, their vindictiveness and paranoia reigns too. A tyrant must always be hypervigilant. As Seneca warned Nero, no matter how many men or women they murder, tyrants will never kill their successors. However, unlike other types of tyrants, the millenarian tyrant embodies a transcendent belief system. As avatars, their pathology becomes unfettered; their cruelty becomes capricious. They use millenarian ideological and spiritual beliefs to justify the dehumanization of their followers. They then play with them like murderous children.
Stalin had a murderously whimsical temperament. In his canonical book on the 1930 purges, The Great Terror (1990), Robert Conquest writes that the reasons Stalin decided to execute or reprieve were often senseless and vindictive. In 1927, Dr. Vladimir Mikhailovich Bekhterev, a highly esteemed neuroscientist of international renown, examined Stalin. Although the reason for the examination is uncertain, Dr. Bekhterev mentioned to colleagues later in the evening that he had just examined a paranoiac (never mentioning Stalin’s name). The following day, Bekhterev suddenly and mysteriously died. Stalin then ordered that Bekhterev’s name and corpus be removed from Soviet schools and publications (Haycock, 2019). And yet, a university student who was going to be jailed for throwing a dart at a portrait of Stalin sent an appeal to Stalin. Stalin responded by not only exonerating the student but praising him for his marksmanship (Montefiore, 2004).
Jan of Leiden, too, created a terror state rooted in a sadistic whimsy. Unlike Stalin, Jan sometimes publicly executed his victims. When one of his wives disagreed with him, he publicly beheaded her, then danced around her bleeding corpse. Moreover, he shares another trait with modern leaders: paranoia and hatred directed toward a single enemy. For Stalin, it was the Trotskyites. For Mao, it was the bourgeois. For Pol Pot, it was Cambodian ethnic and religious groups. For Jan, it was Jews, the clergy, and the rich. For Oceania (the superstate depicted in 1984), it was Emmanuel Goldstein. This enemy, whose malevolence and threat to the state is often imaginary, unites followers in a sacred war. The creation of an enemy is also a violent manifestation of the leader’s own paranoia and fear. There are often sound reasons for a dictatorial leader to be paranoid. However, if you combine these fears with a psychological fear or anxiety that your grandiosity covers up a mundane, self-loathing, and inadequate wretch, then a leader’s paranoia can become extreme and violent.
It is important to note without a transcendent and millenarian edifice, none of these leaders would have been able to thrust themselves into leadership and act out their pathologies. The perversion of utopia – a heaven on earth – would be impossible.
Cohn recounts that if you wish to trace the beginnings of a millenarian movement, the origin will be a social catastrophe. The irony is that the postmodern world may be an ongoing global debacle for communities and kinship. Whether social scientists and others believe there is a global crisis in loneliness, the discussion alone points to a social phenomenon afoot (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2018). Whether it’s global capitalism that turns workers into transitory cogs-in-the-machine or communication technology that both connects and isolates humankind, the consensus is that we are becoming increasingly isolated. This is the playground for Jan of Leiden and other MNLs. Psychoanalyst and former cult member Daniel Shaw stated in a recent podcast on IndoctriNation that he believes that cult leaders are increasingly forming smaller cults. However, this does not mean a diminution in the growth of cults; instead we may be living in a golden age for cults (Bernstein & Shaw, 2019). The MNL is in historical ascendency.
The severity of this phenomenon is significant. Instead of seeking practical, material goals, followers become playthings in a paranoid leader’s millenarian fantasy. They surrender their individuality to a future golden age that never happens. When a malignant leader’s failed promises lead to disaffection by their followers, murderous violence can ensue. The malignant leader, on the other hand, must maintain the illusion of their omnipotence for reasons that are deeply rooted in their personal pathology. According to Daniel Shaw, their dependency on their followers is deeply ambivalent and conflicted (Shaw, 2003). They both need adulation to fuel their stunted egos and, whether aware or not, abhor this dependency. The leader then acts with sometimes extraordinary cruelty toward his or her dependents.
Three cages hang from the Lambert Cathedral in Munster. One of those cages held Jan of Leiden’s corpse after he was executed. It has hung there since his death. That empty cage may be a more appropriate memorial to MNLs than Lenin’s tomb or Franco’s Valley of the Fallen. For, in the end, these leaders, as powerful as they may become and as charming or charismatic as they might seem to be, are deeply disturbed and capable of ugly, destructive outcomes for those around them.
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