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Arch Enemy & Dostoevsky’s Devils

[1]

Angela Gossow

2,045 words

“No gods, no masters” is an old anarchist slogan, dating back to the nineteenth century. It envisions a cosmos marked by an absence of hierarchy. There is no God above us, and there should be no masters in this world to boss us about. Since this small world is our only world, we have an obligation to rid it of all forms of subordination. We won’t get a second chance in some sacred afterlife, where injustice and hierarchy could be divinely dissolved.

The slogan “no gods, no masters” is also the title of a melodic death-metal song by the Swedish band Arch Enemy. The lyrics were written by German-born Angela Gossow, Arch Enemy’s former vocalist and now their manager. The song first appeared in 2011 on the album Khaos Legions, and the band performs it regularly during their many tours. It is, unfortunately, an impressive anthem [2].

In “No Gods, No Masters,” Angela Gossow imagines herself a freedom-seeking rebel with her back thrust against a wall. She is, however, “locked and loaded [and] ready to strike,” and the forces of anarchist justice are united as they prepare to retaliate against humanity’s oppressors. A better future requires this act of defiant self-assertion. Since the cosmos is without God or gods, and since the hierarchies that subordinate us are unjust, we must create ourselves and recreate our world by individual acts of will. Hence the repeated refrain, “I am who I am,” a version of Jehovah’s name. Gossow even manages to work a sentence from Nietzsche into her song, as well as a phrase (“against time”) that she may have lifted from Savitri Devi, without understanding it.

Arch Enemy travel freely around the globe, prominently displaying anarchist symbols while growling about [3] “legions marching ready to fire” and the happy day when anarchism’s black flag will fly over burning cities. Fists are often lyrically raised in rage, and eternal resistance and imminent revolution are often promised. A common idea in the band’s lyrics is that, because of the great suffering oppressors have inflicted on them, their retribution will be all the more devastating.

[4]

Arch Enemy

If their words are taken literally, Arch Enemy are advocating violence; yet no government arrests them, and no police force takes seriously their explicit calls for anarchist revolution and the annihilation of enemies. Videos of their various performances are easily accessible on YouTube. The speech rules that censor even unquestionably factual statements by the Right are not applied to Leftist advocates of anarchy and destruction.

Nor should they be. Although the band’s members believe they are genuine rebels, Arch Enemy’s talk of anarchist revolution is in essence a commercial activity. Fans of Arch Enemy pay to listen to music they enjoy, and if they choose, they can also fantasize that their listening makes authority figures tremble. Arch Enemy’s current vocalist, clearly unaware that anarchists are supposed to believe that property is theft, even complains about undocumented downloading of her music, which should be too trivial a concern for someone committed to sowing chaos and destruction. An old-school showbiz promoter would call Arch Enemy a novelty act. Anarchism is their shtick, which makes the musical product they market seem attractively dangerous.

The specter of anarchism was once more frightening.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Devils, first published in the early 1870s, tells the story of a collection of anarchists and other assorted radicals whose dysfunctions and revolutionary plans disrupt a quiet provincial town and culminate in the murder of a former member of their movement.

Nikolay Stavrogin, the novel’s central character and the most disturbing of its many devils, has “an extraordinary aptitude for crime,” and once raped a pre-teen girl, causing her to hang herself. In a famous passage, the radical theorist Shigalov, hoping to arrive at a better form of social organization, begins his theorizing from the anarchist goal of “unlimited freedom,” but is forced to conclude, based on the evidence he has collected and interpreted, that “unlimited despotism” must be mankind’s post-revolutionary fate.

Because the thoughts of Dostoevsky’s radicals are incoherent and disordered, they have difficulty even speaking with one another. A meeting of anarchists and nihilists quickly descends into angry dissension because they hold wildly incompatible visions of the revolutionary future they are all working to achieve.

But despite their comical disorder as a political movement, many of the anarchists are serious about their plans for violent insurrection and are therefore genuinely threatening. They are all devils, possessed by dangerous ideas. Dostoevsky, who believed he could see the future from scattered portents in his present, has his radicals discuss the murder of a hundred million people to accomplish their revolutionary aims, which turned out to be an accurate prediction of Leftism’s death-toll in the twentieth century.

Above and apart from the anarchist devils stands a lesser devil, the liberal Stepan Verhovensky, Stavrogin’s former mentor, and it is in him that we can see a closer parallel to the self-styled radicals of Arch Enemy.

Verhovensky is convinced that he is persecuted and constantly surveilled by the police. His belief that the Czarist power structure fears him gratifies his vanity, but in fact the authorities have no interest in him and are just barely aware of his existence. His inflated self-image is bound up in his false vision of himself as a threatening radical: “Had anyone assured the honest man on the most irrefutable grounds that he had nothing to be afraid of, he would certainly have been offended.”

In their most recent album, Arch Enemy instruct their listeners that there is only one race [5]: an indivisible humanity which has been divided by false labels maliciously propagated by the powerful. Those of us who dispute this alleged truth are dismissed as lobotomized masses that “never question authority” and “never suspect deceit.” The band are, they want us to believe, boldly speaking truth to power, like little Elijahs armed with guitars.

The fiction that there is only one race happens to be the official position of both the Swedish and German governments, who will punish any vocal disbelievers. It is also the position of every powerful institution in the Western world. Arch Enemy’s claim that the single-race fiction is a radical, suppressed idea is obviously false. Only people who question authority and suspect deceit deny this established truth of anti-racism, our reigning orthodoxy.

Arch Enemy vow to topple unnamed “empires of corruption,” but if we leave aside celestial angels, whom Angela bizarrely plans to bury, and Philistines, who are also marked for death, the only nameable villains who can be identified in their lyrics are racial nationalists, intolerant Christians, and cosmetics companies that test their products on animals. The first two are eligible for criminal prosecution in much of Europe, and the latter have few defenders anywhere.

Angela Merkel does not fear Arch Enemy’s anarchist activism, though she is unlikely to attend their concerts. If she gave the band any thought at all, she would surely marvel at how they can so convincingly present their defense of the anti-racist status quo – and their defense of anti-nationalist politicians like herself – as angry acts of musical rebellion against entrenched authority.

Expressions of anger should imply a real cause for the anger. Put in ethical terms, only people whose ideas are genuinely marginalized have a legitimate right to political anger. A nationalist musician could legitimately sound angry because he has a real motive, inasmuch as his ideas are not only marginalized but often criminalized. Promoters of anti-racist dogma who display anger in their performances are appropriating an emotion that properly belongs to their opponents.

For the last fifty years, Western publics have been regularly lured into believing that a successive series of edgy pop performers are bearers of attractively subversive ideas that threaten established authority. By listening to a certain kind of music, and by carefully pondering the lyrics, you can participate in some important cause, though always a cause favored by the West’s real masters.

Arch Enemy provide a striking example, because there is such a thorough disconnection between the outward aggression of their music and the real location within modern culture of the ideas that the music expresses. On all important issues, the political opinions of Arch Enemy are not materially different from the political opinions of the average kindergarten teacher, or of the average television reporter. Yet the same liberal ideas, located firmly at the center of the deracinated mainstream, are presented in a much different package, decorated with Nietzschean allusions, anarchist slogans, and angry threats of violence against imaginary oppressors.

It is often hard to fully grasp the near-invincible ignorance so common on the Left. Angela Gossow is German. The core male members of Arch Enemy are Swedish. The band’s current vocalist is Canadian. All of them believe – despite the complete absence of evidence – that their respective governments and ruling institutions are white supremacist in nature. It never occurs to any of them that, despite their repeated acts of self-styled rebellion, the indifference of their governments to their anarchist sloganeering disconfirms that belief, which in any case is false on its face. Objectively, the master they serve is establishment power, but in their minds they do the opposite. Because they are so strongly deluded, they can gratify their vanity and convincingly play the role of dangerous metal rebels, free from any threat of punishment.

[6]

Dostoevsky, despite his prophetic abilities, could not have foreseen a future in which musical performers threatening violence and professing anarchism could earn substantial incomes while serving European governments as de facto members of their propaganda departments. His anarchist and nihilist devils were wicked, but most of them genuinely opposed established authority, as did their real-world counterparts.

In Devils the real hero, and the most tragic casualty, is Ivan Shatov, a former follower of Stavrogin. He has become a Russian nationalist, after concluding that anarchists despise their own people. For Shatov, nationalism promises, and can deliver, a kind of group immortality:

Science and reason have, from the beginning of time, played a secondary and subordinate part in the life of nations; so it will be till the end of time. Nations are built up and moved by another force which sways and dominates them, the origin of which is unknown and inexplicable: that force is the force of an insatiable desire to go on to the end, though at the same time it denies that end. It is the force of the persistent assertion of one’s own existence, and a denial of death.

A nation is an ongoing project of group survival and flourishing. It precedes one’s arrival into life, and it should continue after one’s death. In our present we recognize our past as our own and can anticipate our future, so long as the nation’s will to survive persists. Without that insatiable desire in the present, a will carried by individuals asserting their own existence, a nation will die.

Arch Enemy have a song on the same subject, “Yesterday is Dead and Gone [7].” It was written from a much different perspective.

Acknowledging only ourselves and the present moment, we are walking out from the darkness of yesterday, shaking chains and breaking cages while doing so. We will acquire thereby greater compassion, as well as an opportunity to punish enemies on a day of reckoning. Because yesterday is dead and gone, all that matters is our present and our decision now to deny the nationalist claim that we exist and act in continuity with an ongoing group project, which people before us once sustained and people after us could inherit. Somehow, this denial of our history will end all “power games” and allow us to stand in the flames while reaching for the sky.

If all the dissonant sounds are ignored, and after all the entertaining metaphors of cages and flames have been translated, “Yesterday is Dead and Gone” turns out to be a matter-of-fact description of the current ambition of most Western governments, namely the destruction of their own nations. Arch Enemy pretend that this lofty globalist goal will require from us much struggle and the burning of bridges under blood-red skies; but in fact, despite all the band’s colorful talk of resolute will and aggressive action, it requires only our lethargy, which they are in the business of encouraging.