Pursuing the Millennium

Imagine a group that responds to significant social dislocation by creating an ideal society that is defined by both an expectation of a religiously sanctioned utopia and by defining itself by what it is not and acting violently against anything or anybody who represents that 'other'. A violent acting that is both driven by conviction and by the need to reinforce identity. You might think I was describing ISIS and its attempt to reconstruct the Caliphate, attracting to it people in search of a place and meaning that rescues them from either the mundane ordinariness of their lives or insecurity as a minority, apparently or actually threatened.

I am not. I am describing a current that flows through the history of north-western Europe in the Middle Ages that is compellingly described in Norman Cohn's groundbreaking study, 'The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages'.  Here he describes how throughout the period in response to displacing uncertainty - social and economic - specific groups sought to overthrow the existing order, often violently, and establish a religious utopia in expectation of a final end commanded or organized by God.

At one level this can be read as a fascinating outing into bygone history for who now expects the apocalypse (to which the answer is millions, if not billions of actual people, if only in a subset of their minds, in diverse ways, yet a potent myth always available to waken)? But as I read, the contemporary parallels were only too apparent. Cohn himself made connections with these patterns and the unfolding of National Socialism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union. For myself, I could not help being reminded of the Middle East.

Most noticeably in Cohn is his identifying that it was neither the elite nor the socially secure (in his case the peasant in his or her feudal village) that found millenarian fantasies attractive but those whose social position was contested or uncertain - the new urban worker or the marginalized friar or the minor aristocrat. It struck me that we ought to think carefully about the demography of those who slip off to Syria or Iraq for there might lie a significant part of the explanation of why they do so - the push factor at least.

But this aside, what also strikes is the long and continuous pull of a utopia, the ideal place, that lies just over the hill; and, how resilient this is to failure. Repeatedly people donned the role of 'the savior' only to be defeated, only to be 'resurrected' again. Yes, that was not the time but the time is coming.

It feels like a hydra, no simple beheading is ever available. This itself tells us something about the necessary strategic response - it cannot be simply one of reciprocal violence for this only offers temporary release. It is the underlying social dynamics that must be addressed.

What would make people feel at home in the world, engaged meaningfully in stable and accepting communities, and authors of their own fate? For ultimately the response to all fantasies of utopia are in building a somewhere, rather than a nowhere, in which everyone is at home.

This need not be a counsel of perfection only one of humanity.



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