Monash University SPS HDR Symposium 2018 Abstract

Presentation title: The Ethical Collapse of Aum Shinrikyo

Name: Alexander (Alex) George Burns

Discipline: Terrorism Studies

Key words: Aum Shinrikyo, Shambhala Plan, strategic culture, coercion practices, ethical collapse

Abstract: On 6th July 2018 the Japanese Government executed Aum Shinrikyo’s founder Shoko Asahara (born Chizuo Matsumoto) and six senior members of the Buddhist Tantra Vajrayana and Hindu-influenced religious cult. Six further members were executed on 26th July 2018. Aum Shinrikyo achieved notoriety for its sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway on 20th March 1995, which killed 13 people and injured 6000 others. This presentation synthesises relevant insights from the sub-fields of strategic culture and terrorism studies to examine Aum Shinrikyo from a new perspective: its initial rise, its ethical collapse, and its subsequent descent into terrorist violence (via its secretive development of chemical and biological weapons development that was compartmentalised to the upper echelons of the organisation). The specific coercion practices which occurred in Aum Shinrikyo that bound together its leadership and renunciate followers are identified and summarised. The religious cult’s utopian Shambhala Plan is reinterpreted in terms of: (i) fulfilling Asahara’s adverse experiences, career ambitions, and life chances, and (ii) facilitating both elite circulation and social mobility of its senior members at the expense of its renunciate followers, and in the broader socio-economic context of Japan’s ‘lost decades’ of deflationary growth. The combination of coercion practices and ethical collapse means that Aum Shinrikyo now has a greater significance beyond terrorism studies: the religious cult can be related to other potential case studies such as Enron, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Theranos, and the Madoff Ponzi scheme fraud.

Disinformation’s End

I heard today that the alternative news website Disinformation has ceased publication due to legal reasons. I began writing for Disinformation from around July 1998 at the invitation of co-founder Richard Metzger. I did two editorial stints: (1) November 1999 to August 2002, and (2) April 2003 to February 2008. (Russ Kick edited the site in the interim period.) I witnessed a range of events from the 2000 Dotcom crash and September 11 to the George W. Bush presidency and the onset of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis or Great Recession. Richard Metzger the creative force behind the site’s classic period – and book and television projects – left in 2005 and now publishes the blog Dangerous Minds. Many of the writers who I worked with —- Russ Kick, Nick Mamatas, Roy Christopher, Preston Peet, Jason Louv, Klint Finley, Douglas McDaniel, and Cletus Nelson amongst others —- have all gone on to greater things. This material is on Thanks to Richard Metzger, Gary Baddeley, and Ralph Bernardo for the opportunity to work with you.

What I’m Reading

  1. Russian ‘Hybrid Warfare’: Resurgence and Politicization by Ofer Fridman (Oxford University Press, 2018). Hybrid war using non-military means and the operational codes of Vladimir Putin’s networks are two ways to update Jack Snyder’s original work on strategic culture for what I call fourth generation scholarship. Fridman’s book examines rival conceptual definitions of what hybrid war is – and how political elites in Russia and the United States have incentivised the concept.
  2. Extremism by J.M. Berger (The MIT Press, 2018). I’ve spent part of my in-progress dissertation trying to develop a causal model of belief adoption about violence that leads strategic actors to prefer terrorist tactics as a means to pursue strategic goals. Berger’s scholarship is critical to this aim, and he draws on George Washington University’s Haroro J. Ingram, who is a rising star about violent extremism in policy-making circles.
  3. Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era  by J.D. Taylor (Zero Books, 2013). In studying Aum Shinrikyo for my in-progress dissertation I’ve made political economy connections with Japan’s ‘lost decades’ of macroeconomic deflation and debt leverage. In many ways Japan’s sociopolitical experience foreshadowed the Great Recession or Global Financial Crisis that has affected the West since 2008. Taylor’s book reflects the United Kingdom experience with neoliberal austerity policies and is bracing to read.
  4. Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence And Oppression by Hector A. Garcia (Random House, 2015). Several years ago Max Taylor suggested that counterterrorism analysts study evolutionary psychology to understand distal and diachronic influences on terrorists. Garcia’s book suggests a range of infra- and inter-group dynamics that could be used for qualitative coding of the terrorism studies literature.