“One must be able to name the katechon for every epoch of the last 1,948 years. The place has never been empty, or else we would no longer exist.”
–Carl Schmitt, Nazi Jurist
In ancient Western myths, a certain story persists. It seems to cross cultural and language boundaries, retold by Celts on the far northwestern shores of France and the Greeks bordering the edge of what we now call Europe. Its persistence suggests it to be a core myth of European society; in each version the motifs are the same, the circumstances not much varied, and the consequences deadly.
The story is this: a great, peaceful island, a walled city full of splendor, a paradise. Outside is chaos, poverty, war. Within, perfection, or the the height of learning, streets full of wealth and happiness. And then, a flood, a storm, a catastrophe.
This place is called by many names: Atlantis, Ys, Cantre’r Gwaelod, Lyonesse. Historians and archeologists have tried to find evidence of its existence; new agers have constructed elaborate theories naming it the origin of all occult and magical knowledge. Because its story haunts the lore of so many peoples, perhaps the better question is not ‘did it exist?’ but rather ‘why do we still tell this story?’
In many of of the tales, the great civilization disappears under the sea, and in an unsurprising number of them, this catastrophe is triggered by a woman. I say unsurprising not because women have a tendency to drown cities, but because women tend to get blamed for the downfall of civilization very often. Pandora had her box, Eve her forbidden fruit, and of course, there’s the Whore of Babylon.
In the Celtic stories of the drowned island, a woman causes the end by leaving a floodgate open. The Bretons tell it with the daughter of a sea-witch, Dahut; in the Welsh tales, a ‘well-maiden’ named Mererid is the cause. While the misogyny of such tales seems quite obvious, we’d make a mistake if we dismiss these myths as mere propaganda against women and their ‘weakness.’ In all these stories, women held in their hands the key to ending what men had built, and in most of them, it was their refusal to obey the order of men which ended an era and began another one.
How dare a woman destroy everything? Those….whores.
We tend to dismiss such stories immediately as being part of the tapestry of patriarchal terror sustaining our current era. They certainly help uphold this order, but we should not ignore them completely: they tell us something not just about patriarchy, but something deeper about how very fragile political orders actually are. They rely on our obedience.
While we often think of obedience and disobedience as passive stances, the roots and primary usage of the words both refer to action:
Obey: late 13c., from Old French obeir “obey, be obedient, do one’s duty” (12c.), from Latin obedire, oboedire “obey, be subject, serve; pay attention to, give ear.”
That is, an obedient person does what they are told, does their duty, pays attention, serves, becomes subservient to the will of others. There is no passivity implied: obedience and disobedience are both actions.
While women are blamed in every one of these tales for the downfall of civilization, it isn’t just their woman-ness which causes these catastrophes: it’s their act of disobedience, their conscious withdrawal, their refusal to sustain the current order.
Patriarchal myths do not just blame women for the end of the world, they feminize disobedience. Men are good, obedient servants; women are lawless, unruly, disobedient rebels. Doing ones duty, in this conception, is a male trait; rebellion is the nature of women. But in none of these cases is that act of rebellion ‘passive.’ It is an active choice which destroys the Garden, opens the box, floods the world.
As most Marxist-feminists (and a few non-Marxist ones) often point out, the patriarchal oppression of women harms both women and men. If obedience and doing ones duty are seen as masculine traits, it’s not hard to see why so much government propaganda towards soldiers emphasizes masculinity. A man dies a bloody, painful death on the battlefield because it’s his duty to do so. By being obedient to the powers above him, he is being a man: only a woman (or an ‘effeminate’ man) would disobey the will of the leaders.
Thus, to liberate women from this dichotomy is also to liberate men; both are equally bound into the same order of exploitation, just as, according to both Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin, whites are also imprisoned by the creation of Blackness.
To reach this liberation, we must summon the spectre of the whore.
In the final chapters of the Bible, a figure appears, striding upon a horned beast, sitting upon the seas, reigning “over the kings of the earth.” Upon her forehead is written,
MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.
Peter Grey’s book The Red Goddess convincingly shows her to be Inanna-Ishtar, the great goddess of Babylon, literally a mother of ‘harlots’ (the temple prostitutes). The continuation of female-led religious groups (particularly embracing a ‘rebellious’ sexuality) was a consistent threat to the early Christian order: no doubt the writer of Revelations intended to invoke such a goddess when depicting the enemy of Christ during the Apocalypse.
While many non-Christian myths similarly named a woman as the cause of civilization’s end, Christianity pinning the world’s end on a Whore is particularly interesting. A Whore isn’t just a woman, it’s a sort of woman, not just disobedient, but sexually empowered and liberated. Unlike the other cataclysms catalysed by a disobedient woman, the Christian apocalypse is reigned over by the mother of whores, of women who are the very embodiment of lawlessness.
The whore stands outside the patriarchy: she has no husband, so has no one to obey. She also disobeys the natural-political order: sex with her is pleasure and trade, but not for production (of children: i.e., new workers, new political subjects). She demands payment for her services, rather than giving without getting back. And most of all, unlike the dutiful wife, she can refuse.
If the Christians were so certain that their reign could be ended by a whore, and if our goal were merely the end of codified Christian doctrine, then any heretic should take her quite serious. However, we’re not just about the end of overt Christianity, but rather the end of the entire capitalist order. Is the Whore still relevant?
Yes. But to understand why, we need to look at how what we think of as ‘secular’ Liberal Democracy is also a continuation and expansion of Christian empire, and why the Whore still haunts us to this day.
When religious conservatives in Europe and North America describe their countries as ‘Christian nations,’ they usually mean something quite superficial. However, they are not actually wrong, they merely don’t go far back enough in history to understand the truth of this.
Christianity started as a religion antagonistic to the Roman Empire, but it did not stay that way. The conversion of Constantine and the adoption of Christianity as the new state religion made certain of this, but we miss something crucial if we leave the story there.
Christianity was initially described not as a religion, but as a disciplina, a mode of living, control, and governance. Christianity was not just a set of personal beliefs: it functioned also as a political order, with priests and bishops handing down proclamations about right action, warnings against heresy, and specific directions to the faithful below them. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, this hierarchy increased, especially as bishops became the new oracles of the empire.
While Pagan Rome was certainly brutal and authoritarian, Pagan state religion only worked well in areas of the empire where the gods were similar enough to be merged. Much more difficult were the far-flung provinces where ancient beliefs were not so easily assimilated.
By the time Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, Rome had been facing crises of governance, revolts, and an economic panic as its expansion stopped. Christianity’s monotheism was an ideal solution to these crises. Not only did it displace a myriad of gods with one totalized God, it also had a coherent moral code, an easily-transferred hierarchy, and an intense missionary zeal.
While it’s common to blame Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire, this is hardly a majority opinion amongst historians. More so, it misses the continuation of Roman imperialism past the official fall of the empire in 476 through the Catholic Church.
Understand: when a state fails, it doesn’t just disappear. Consider what might happen to New York City or Paris if there were suddenly no United States or France; they’d continue, albeit more chaotically. Also, the political and economic influence of those cities wouldn’t just go away.
When the Roman Empire fell, Rome didn’t fall with it, nor did Christianity. They just both lost access to vast legions of soldiers to enforce their will throughout the rest of Europe. This meant they had to find other ways of influencing those around them.
To understand these other means of influence, you’ll need to know what Hegemony is and how it works.
Hegemony is a political arrangement in which a very strong power exerts influence over weaker powers. This influence can be direct or subtle, but it is only sometimes openly violent. Hegemony functions indirectly: other powers do the will of the hegemonic power often without being asked. In essence, they internalize the will of the stronger power and obey it.
The United States is a good example of a hegemonic power. Though it directly rules over only the land it occupies in North America, it exerts political control over the entire western hemisphere because of its military, economic, and cultural strength. South American countries generally do what the USA wants them to do because they implicitly understand the consequences of disobedience. The US has helped overthrow several South and Central American governments through the CIA, attempted repeated assassinations of leaders like Castro, and has funded anti-government rebels (the Contras, for instance). Likewise, US-funded propaganda programs (Voice of America, etc.) also ensure complicity, while the vast American media companies help make other peoples more sympathetic to the United States.
Thus, to act against the United States is to court death, but no one needs to be told this. America’s will becomes theirs.
While this hegemonic influence might appear to be a new aspect of the modern state, Catholic control over Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire functioned exactly the same way.
Consider the propagandistic nature of church doctrine. Each town and village with a church had a branch-office of this propaganda machine; priests functioned as agents of the Church, ensuring doctrinal uniformity throughout the lands. Through such a network, the Church could exert social and cultural control over the opinions of the people without ever lifting a blade.
Control over the cultural and social forms of societies is control over the people, and it’s easy to see why Christianity was so ideal. A religious order which teaches obedience as godly and disobedience as sinful, and one which especially limits and subjugates rebellion in the form of women (whores, witches) perfectly complements political order.
With this control over Christian society, the Church also exerted hegemonic control over monarchies. A king who chose to go against the Pope faced excommunication, revolt from his subjects, and even a crusade from other kings. Without a standing army, the Pope’s will shaped the fates of every kingdom around him.
The European political order was a Christian political order.
In 800 CE, Charlemagne declared the birth of a new Holy Roman Empire, and was crowned Emperor by the pope. This fully wed the church and the political powers together, a marriage that didn’t seem to end until the Reformation. The Reformation and the Enlightenment supposedly meant the end of hegemonic Christian empire and the beginning of a secular era in European politics. It also meant the birth of Liberal Democracy.
Did Liberal Democracy really escape its Christian predecessors?
We can ignore the façile claims of fundamentalists in the United States that America is a ‘Christian nation.’ Likewise too easy is the persistence of nominal Christianity within political parties in Europe (for instance, Angela Merkel is a “Christian Social Democrat”). A much stronger case can be made.
The continued Christian nature of Liberal Democracy is seen best by looking at its most staunchly non-Christian advocates: atheist intellectuals. Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens (dead), Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris have all made extensive defenses of Liberal Democracy and outlined its crucial secular nature. Likewise, all four greatly criticize(d) ‘intrusions’ of Christian morality into secular society. And all four wrote extensively about the danger of one particular religion to Western (secular) Civilisation.
That religion? Islam, not Christianity.
Why Islam? Obviously, it’s monotheist, patriarchal, and like all religions has a dangerous strain of fundamentalism. But their obsession with Islam rather than Christianity reveals the persistence of Christian hegemony even in their atheism. Islam is so dangerous precisely because it is not European–that is, it is not Christian.
In the Middle Ages, the Church could (and often did) prevent wars between European states on the basis that they were both Christian. The cultural power the Pope wielded over the people was formidable: few soldiers would want to risk eternal damnation or excommunication for very little pay. Tacit support by the Church (sometimes by taking sides, mostly by remaining silent) was crucial for wars.
The people who were always fair game, however, were Muslims and Pagans. For instance, the wars which eventually forced the last Pagan king of Europe to convert (14th century) were crusades. Likewise, the reconquista in Spain and all the many crusades into Jerusalem were not just sanctioned but rewarded by the Church. Killing a Muslim was not just okay, it was a holy act, while killing another Christian was murder or worse.
Western Liberal Democracies didn’t change this. One need only recall that one of the primary justifications for the European Union was that it would keep European countries from warring with each other. Replace the word “Liberal Democratic” with “Christian,” and it’s not hard to understand why the United States doesn’t attack Canada or France. Not only are they not enemies, but they are part of the same community of believers, the new Catholic (‘universal’) communion.
This communion extends not just to the lack of military conflict between each other, but their united front against Muslim nations. Just as Catholic hegemony acted as a strong barrier against European wars and legitimized wars against Muslims and Pagans, Liberal Democracy legitimizes wars in the Middle East. Not only legitimizes, but mythologizes and glorifies: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade were done to defend Western Civilization (Democracy, Freedom, “our way of life”) just as the crusades were declared to protect Christendom.
That such violence against non-Christians occurs in the name of secularism rather than in Christianity hardly changes anything: in fact, it gives us a clue to what is actually meant by ‘secular.’
Consider the bans on Muslim practices in Europe in the name of secularism. Banning hijabs and burkas in the name of protecting women certainly sounds enlightened. However, controlling what women wear, regardless of what it is they are wearing, is still control of women. Likewise, in the name of the secularist idea of ‘animal welfare,’ halal and kosher butchery have been banned in at least one European country and several more have tried to follow suit. Yet European methods of butchery (factory farming, industrialized slaughterhouses) can hardly be called humane and are not up for discussion.
Consider, too, Switzlerland’s ban of minarets, France’s ban on religious symbols (but not crosses) in public schools, and the ‘war on terror’ (including Trump’s plans to deport Muslims): these are even more examples of how Liberal Democracy continues to function as a Christian political order.
While the word “Christian” can be used interchangeably with “Liberal Democracy,” we cannot end this history of Empire here. Other words equally suffice and are just as important.
One of those words? White. When Canada, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand all committed troops together to fight the civilizational threat of Islamic Terrorism, only white people could have missed the fact that it was an alliance of powerful white nations against Arabs. Within those countries, fear and hatred of immigrants is likewise racialized.
There’s a tendency to chalk all of these wars without and within Liberal Democratic nations up to “White Supremacy.” This is an accurate, but incredibly incomplete, understanding. Whiteness is powerful, and whites are absolutely dominant in white Liberal Democracies. However, whiteness is merely a mechanic, a formula which helps determine whether or not someone belongs.
That is, the hegemonic political order called Liberal Democracy is white, but whiteness is the effect of that order, not the cause. Whiteness developed only recently, and only as a way of determining privilege within Liberal Democracies (whites on top) and undermining allegiances amongst the lower-classes which threatened the entire political order.
Likewise, Liberal Democracy is patriarchal, but this is again a function and governing method of the order. Women absolutely receive fewer rights, fewer protections, less wealth, less political power, and endure more violence than men. This is unquestionable. However, fighting the patriarchy is not enough to destroy Liberal Democracy. It is accurate but inadequate to describe our current order as patriarchal, just as fighting white supremacy only attacks the method of governance, not governance itself.
We can string together litanies for days on what Liberal Democracy is (bell hooks, for instance, uses the term “Imperialist White-Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy,” which is much too short) and doing so can certainly help understand how thorough its hegemonic control over us is. By calling it Liberal Democracy, we must mean all the strands of the kyriarchal web while remembering that the entire web must be destroyed, not just one strand.
So here we are now, governed by a hegemonic political-theology simultaneously Christian, European, imperialist, patriarchal, white, capitalist, etc.. It is all-powerful, soaking through every one of our social, cultural, economic, and political interactions. We are flies in its web, trapped, breaking one strand yet caught by even more in our struggle.
How can you fight such a thing?
By becoming what it is most afraid of.
Though Liberal Democracy officially denies its Christian nature, a very minor text within the New Testament managed to form the basis for its entire political strategy:
And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. 2 thessalonians 2:6-7
The author (Paul) is writing members of the new order he is building, warning them not to act like the end-times are at hand. Before the anti-christ (the ‘he/him’ to which he refers) can arrive, ‘what is now restraining’ and ‘the one who now restrains’ (τὸ κατέχον, “katechon,”) must be removed. Meanwhile, the ‘mystery of lawlessness’ ( ἀνομία, “anomia”–being outside the law, wicked, or unruled) is already at work.
Regardless of what Paul actually meant by this section (there are countless theories), the concept of something holding back the chaos and lawlessness of the end-times persists to this day.
In fact, you know the Katechon intimately.
Consider the most recent election in the United States. The Democratic Party offered a pro-capitalist centrist candidate with deep ties to corporate oil, finance, and banking industries. Despite her obvious allegiance with the very things which are currently destroying the earth, many on “the left” supported her anyway, seeing her as the only chance to restrain the pure violence of a Trump presidency. That is, Hillary Clinton was presented as the Katechon, the only way to hold back a terrifying flood of wickedness and chaos.
In the United Kingdom, the same arguments were used to justify remaining as part of the European Union. Center-left activists particularly were terrified of what might come were the UK to leave. Loss of protections, the end of mobility, increasing domestic violence, erosions of wealth all would come if Brexit occurred. In this case, the EU was the Katechon, the only thing holding back the flood of misery and poverty.
The Katechon is seen also in questions of terrorism, security, and international war. The terrorist is ἀνομία/anomia, the lawless/wicked ones, currently at work undermining civilization. The sense of ‘unruled’ and ‘lawless’ is particularly relevant: the terrorist obeys no government and operates outside the moral order of Liberal Democratic societies. The terrorist doesn’t work within Liberal Democratic ‘law,’ seeking justice through the courts or change through electoral politics. Rather, the terrorist blows things up.
Here, shutting down borders, removing rights and protections, increasing surveillance, arresting dissidents, and waging foreign wars is what holds back the flood. None of this really works, though, since any person has the potential to spontaneously generate into a terrorist. Still, these actions are increasingly implemented in the name of holding back the chaos, keeping the enemies outside the gates, holding back a surging tide. That is, the Katechon.
This is the very same logic which prevents revolution in Liberal Democratic societies. Talk of ending capitalism, disarming the police, or even all-out revolt is dismissed by evoking the fear of what might happen without those things. Without the police, there would be only ἀνομία/anomia, lawlessness. Who would protect us from foreign enemies if we had no governments and military? How would we get our medicines, food, and electricity without capitalism?
This is not just a contemporary trick of Liberal Democracy. The same logic operated in Hobbes conception that life outside the strong state would be ‘nasty, brutish, and short,’ in the checks on popular democracy (including the electoral college) written into the US constitution, in the Terror which followed the French Revolution, and in all the formations of other states throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Both right-wing and left-wing ideologies fell victim to the cult of the Katechon: Marxism’s shift to a statist ideology through Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin was a response to the fear of ἀνομία, while it was Fascist theorists who most openly spoke directly about the Katechon. Oswald Spengler and Julius Evola both sought to stave off a coming apocalypse through an embrace of ancient imperial forms, and the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt (quoted at the beginning of this essay) saw Hitler as the Katechon, the last hope of civilization against lawlessness and disorder. From his diary:
“I believe in the katechon: it is for me the only possible way to understand Christian history and to find it meaningful”
This begs a question.
If the leading jurist for the Nazi regime was so intent on having a Katechon who could hold back the tides of chaos, what great evil could possibly have been worse than the gassing of 10 million people?
Is the lawlessness, the ‘anti-christ’ that the Katechon restrains really all that worse than the brutality of our current political orders?
The Katechon exists to hold back a coming catastrophe. In the earliest iteration of it from Paul, the Katechon restrains the revelation of the anti-christ; it holds back the apocalypse.
Fear of the apocalypse is a significant part of most Evangelical Christian sects. On the extreme end are the relentless predictions, the certainty that Jesus is about to return and will judge all the nations of the world leading to some fascinating and frightful behaviors. The apocalypse, though, isn’t confined to devout Christians waiting for the rapture or a literal horn-blowing angel. Nor do I just mean the liberatarian Mad-Max or Walking Dead fantasists. Governments, too, are terrified of their own end and what might come after.
What is an apocalypse really, except the end of one order and the beginning of the next? And here’s where we should remember what the word apokálypsis actually means. The last book of the Bible in most English editions is called “Revelations,” but it’s older name is Apocalypse. Both words mean the same thing, hidden knowledge unveiled. The Katechon holds back the Apocalypse, restrains a revelation against the ‘mystery of lawlessness,’ holding back the tides of chaos by keeping something hidden.
What’s the Katechon hiding? What doesn’t it want us to see? What knowledge must it hide from us lest the Whore and the Anti-christ walk the earth?
Liberal Democracy is destroying the planet, warming the oceans, melting the ice caps, extinquishing species, poisoning the water. Industrialisation increases this damage, alienating us from one another, turns us into machines. Liberal Democracies wage war on defenseless peoples in foreign countries, kill minorities, trample the poor and exalt the rich. They keep women oppressed, rape the earth, and sell nature back to us as packaged trinkets to be thrown away back into the open wounds of that great whore Earth.
Yet all the while, we cling tightly to it. We cannot end Liberal Democracy, because worse will come.
What could be worse?
The Katechon whispers: you need me. I am holding back the anti-christ. I restrain the whore. I am preventing the apocalypse.
You will die without me.
Which reminds us of another whore.
Though the Bible ends with the Whore of Babalon, it begins with the very first whore, the very first lawless one. Everyone living under Liberal Democracy knows her name, knows that whore’s crime. You can’t escape it, you cannot avoid knowing how she destroyed everything.
She, too, heard the warnings of the Katechon. She heard what would happen if she did not obey, heard the consequences of disobedience.
She also heard something else:
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
At the beginning of this essay I asked why these stories of women destroying the world are told. By now, you must already know the answer.
And by now, you already know who the Katechon is.
You are the Katechon which holds back the apocalypse, you in your obedience to what they demand.
You are the Katechon that restrains you from acting, what sways you away from your will.
You are the Katechon who tells you that you shall die if you act. You will die without capitalism, without Liberal Democracy, without supermarkets and smartphones, surveillance cameras and taxes, without your strong daddy-leaders, without cops and priests and credit cards, without banks and congress and flags, without your job, without your mortgage, without nuclear weapons and satellites. Without men with guns telling people what to do, you’ll die.
You have internalized the will of the powerful, and you think it is your own.
You are the Katechon who tells you what you’ll become without them: a whore, nothing else, male or female or in-between, just a sniveling nothing without Them. Without this political order, with these leaders, without the rich, you’ll have no way to survive except your body. You’ll be an outcast, banished with the all other whores and your mother, Mystery.
You are the Katechon, but you can also hear the serpent saying you will not die.
Of course, if you listen to that voice, you might become the whore who opens those gates, drowns the city, and floods the world.
I say go with that voice. But that’s not my choice to make for you.
Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarch, or you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook. He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too,
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