Events are sometimes grand enough to take on a mythic resonance that can be discerned even by those preoccupied by profane matters. The Great Recession and its aftermath have been such events, and a myth that captures those moments and their paradoxes is the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl. As I explain elsewhere, what we learned from the bursting of the housing bubble is that Western economies are dominated by feckless supervillains who retain their godlike plutocratic privileges even though they don’t deserve to be worshiped by the herds of little people. The American and European bankers led deregulation of the financial markets in 1990s (via lobbying, the revolving door, etc), orchestrated the real estate fraud through financial scheming, won a no-strings-attached, one-sided bailout through their capture of Obama’s economics team, and subsequently pushed through austerity measures to further squeeze the middle classes (via their think tanks' ideological capture of the neoliberals in government). Those bankers thus demonstrated that the Western political and economic systems are corrupt in that they no longer serve the interests of the majority of Western citizens. European countries such as Greece, Italy, and Portugal revolted against their political Parties’ handling of the European debt crisis.
But nowhere are the mythic proportions of the scandal more apparent than in the American presidential campaigns. In both Parties, the establishment is faced with insurgencies from political outsiders. Despite the fact that the US leads the Western world in its enthrallment to market logic, creating what Guy Debord called the society of the spectacle, a society in which false realities or images rule by commodifying every aspect of social life, that forlorn nation appears to be the site of a progressive revolution. Whereas ordinarily the multitudes are blind to the corruption that’s become so pervasive it’s been normalized, so that far from fighting for their political rights, they cheer on figures who promise indirectly to further entrench the oppressive social systems, as explained by Thomas Frank, American Democrats and Republicans have now struck upon a populist language that can’t easily be coopted by the deep state. This is the language based on the dichotomies of insiders and outsiders, and of the corrupt establishment and the promise of renewal by radically transforming the social systems. On the left, the solution is democratic socialism, on the right it’s nativism, theocracy, or fascism.
As summarized by the Wikipedia article, the Hymn of the Pearl, found in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, ‘tells the story of a boy, “the son of the king of kings”, who is sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent. During the quest, he is seduced by Egyptians and forgets his origin and his family. However, a letter is sent from the king of kings to remind him of his past. When the boy receives the letter, he remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl and returns.’ In the ancient Jewish context, Egypt stood for corruption, so the Egyptian seducers are the demonic archons who serve as prison wardens, distracting us with sinful pleasures so that we’ll lose our chance of enlightenment or gnosis. The Hymn is an allegory, the point being that we’re all like that boy, lost in a profane world; we’ve forgotten our true calling and our authentic ideals and must be reminded by an outsider. In Gnostic systems, there’s often a transcendent redeemer emanating from the ineffable ground of being, a prophetic saviour who informs us that we’re in the ultimate bad news/good news situation: we’re imprisoned in the fallen natural universe so that even our bodies lead us astray, but there’s a perfect, more real world beyond which is our true home, and we can return to it by taking various mystical or ascetic steps.
The Gnostic Connotations of the 2016 Democratic Campaigns
In the American presidential election, there are likewise outsiders and insiders, transcendent redeemers and archons, angels of the Demiurge. Let’s begin with the Democrats. Bernie Sanders’ entrance to the American mass media narrative was delayed for months, because the corporate media, which serve up the cultural spectacle, what Marx called the ideological superstructure that explains away injustices in the economy, are of course part of the establishment. The media establishment defends the status quo, putting systems before people, whereas the predominant social systems are typically Trojan horses for natural hierarchies and cycles, and people have the anomalous potential to transcend or subvert natural processes. So Hillary Clinton was touted as a shoe-in for the Democratic nominee, and the “free” world’s so-called leading nation was poised to welcome another political dynasty. But Sanders was supported by a grass-roots movement, fuelled in part by disappointment with Obama who had campaigned as a transformative, Rooseveltian figure but had governed as a centrist, having evidently fallen under the archons’ spell. Obama thus stands for John the Baptist, Sanders for the Christ-like real deal, for the true, incorruptible redeemer who will separate the wheat from the chaff, washing away the Egyptian seducers, like Moses at the Red Sea. Having become too popular to ignore, the corporate centers of infotainment ended their media blackout, opting for the standard framing devices of a horse race or a boxing match between equals. In any case, Bernie Sanders is still manifestly the outsider, the old, Jewish socialist who takes no money from Wall Street and promises specific radical changes, such as universal health care and education paid for by a tax on Wall Street speculation so that Wall Street can return the favour and bail out the middle class.