The Ethics of The Chaos Protocols

Gordon White is now a major influence within chaos magick. I recently finished reading his latest book, The Chaos Protocols: Magical Technicques for Navigating the New Economic Reality.

It does not happen often, but I was offended by this book. Most of all, by the part where White presents a version of The Bornless Ritual (cannily retitled ‘The Headless Rite’.)

I have no problems with the ritual. However, White suggests that, consequent to its performance, “family-owned houses have sold for over a million dollars” and “I have had […] job offers from out of the blue without even an interview, from the world’s most desirable company” (White 2016: 72).

In western magick, the Bornless Ritual has been used to protect Goetic magickians from harm. It has also been employed to invoke the “holy guardian angel”. But White appears to regard it as a suitable vehicle for wealth magick (73).

There was much in the book I found inspiring, particularly the analysis of the world economic situation. But, despite admiring White’s genuinely devastating portrayal of how ‘the rules of this world were simply not built for your benefit’ (6), I deplore his proposed solution. And I have been puzzling ever since over the offence that this style of chaos magick provokes in me.

The Chaos Protocols by Gordon White.
The Chaos Protocols, by Gordon White.

Offence stems generally from holding beliefs too rigidly. So what justification have I, as a supposedly belief-shifting chaos magickian, admitting to an experience of offence? I hold the view that the importance we place on the results of our magick reveals something about our nature. Yet White regards as a “dangerous illusion” (54) the perspective that magick is a teleological or developmental process. His view is that we do not and cannot know what we really want (our ‘True Will’) because no such thing exists.

Despite forgoing the notion of will, this seems a fundamentally Nietzschean moral outlook. It is indeed an enlivening critique of the sadly compliant muggle who assumes the good life is attained merely from obeying societal rules. However, “the life’s work of a chaos magician”, concludes White, is “fine-tuning probabilistic dials for fun and profit” (136), which (to anyone who has seen The Wolf of Wall Street) might sound more like a memoir of a stockbroker than a mage.

White assumes a disparity of wealth between himself and his reader. “[Y]ou would not be reading this book because you would already be wealthy”, he jibes at one point, although he credits that I might “be reading it on the deck of your super-yacht in Croatia” (135). In the course of dispensing further careers advice, he proffers: “which option has even the tiniest chance of you owning a network of old folks homes and retiring to a private island?” (165), as if this were a self-evidently laudable aim.

Is this really a book about chaos magick? Maybe it is, because White’s tone perhaps reminds us of the kind of political opinions that Peter Carroll frequently expresses on his blog. (Carroll must despair of the leftist, socially-conscious and wealth-indifferent folk who – in my experience – form the majority of those involved in the contemporary chaos current.) Yet, unlike Carroll, White seems a little uncomfortable with his own views. At one point he laments: “no one explains to you how difficult it is to demonstrate enough personal success to justify taking up the reader’s time without sounding like an appalling person in the process” (179).

Maybe this was an insight that should have given him greater pause for thought because, evidently, like most, White wants to be a good person. To be seen as good implies that goodness is indeed something that others recognise and share. “[T]he fundamental form of human relationship”, writes Alasdair MacIntyre, following Aristotle, “is in terms of shared goods. The egoist is […] always someone who has made a fundamental mistake about where his own good lies and someone who has thus and to that extent excluded himself from human relationships” (MacIntyre 1985: 229).

One of the most pernicious effects of globalised capitalism is its atomisation of society. Whatever the latest technology, convenience or working practice, it seems always at the expense of human relationships. White wants to dance his own dance, and yet it seems to be very much to capitalism’s tune.

White strongly advises the magickian to uproot from his or her community and follow the money: “Refusing to move is taking the position that you will make do with the reduced or entirely absent opportunities in the area where you currently live” (White 2016: 163). Rather than finding ways to develop honest and direct relationships with others (and with ourselves), he advises: “you will need to be very good at compartmentalisation” (169), and to deal with the psychological consequences of this alienation: “If you want to complain about people, get a therapist” (169). While some might regard this as the chaos magickian bucking the system, it looks suspiciously to me like self-centred quietism. I can hear capitalism laughing at us… Or, at least, I think it is capitalism that I hear…

A threatening demon appears before Doctor Faustus.
You picks your paradigm. You pays your price.

White’s fundamental egotistical mistake is perhaps due to the underlying magickal model he adopts in the book: the deal with the devil (or trickster). “You will get nowhere in magic or in life”, he suggests, “without a robust relationship with the Lord of the Crossroads” (106). Yet, ever since Doctor Faustus, it is clear that anyone who enters into such a deal loses their soul. As in goetic workings, where the magickian expects to be screwed if the spirits are given leeway, so the signatory of the midnight crossroads pact must recognise that their soul is necessarily forfeit. This is simply the consequence of entering into that magickal model.

But I suspect that, in his rejection of the concept of “True Will”, White assumes he has no soul in the first place to lose. However, this exempts no one from the conditions of that magickal model. This is the error, I think, that accounts for the ethical vacuity of The Chaos Protocols, despite its perspicacity in so many other respects.

Either White assumes that his soul is not worth saving, or by assuming he has none to lose he is attempting playing a trick on the trickster, and in the process identifying with that from which he hoped to extract a bargain. But in this way he simply swindles himself; he ends up doing the devil’s work, instead of the devil doing his.

This was the source of my offence, I realised: the lack of importance placed on the development of the soul. If that really plays no part in chaos magick, then neither can I.


MacIntyre, Alasdair (1985). After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory. Second edition. London: Duckworth.

White, Gordon (2016). The Chaos Protocols: Magical Techniques for Navigating the New Economic Reality. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn.


“The Monkey’s Paw” (1902) is a supernatural tale of suspense written by W.W. Jacobs. And monkeyspawed is a slang-term I’ve heard, used by magickians to describe a particular way in which magick can rebound.

For instance, Boffo and I monkeyspawed ourselves handsomely in a recent working. I had been suffering from recurrent headaches and devised a ritual to balance my ajna chakra. Boffo was assisting, so I broadened the intention to include him. “It is our will,” we declared at the beginning of the ritual, “to balance our ajna chakras”.

It was a couple of weeks, and required the acumen of a third party, before we arrived at an explanation of the puzzling outcome of the working, because, the next day, I had my usual headache (although not quite as bad as usual) and Boffo had one as well. So we had indeed “balanced” our ajna chakras, in the sense that Boffo’s ajna chakra had been rendered as equally fucked-up as mine.

Skeletal figure on the cover of the 7th Pan Book of Horror.
The book in which, as a kid, I first read Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”.

The paw in Jacobs’ tale is a dried-up talisman with the power to grant three wishes, but it has left a trail of unhappiness. Its magick, we are informed, comes from a holy fakir who placed a spell upon it because: “He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow”. The hero of the tale, Mr. White, wishes for some cash to pay off his mortgage, only to receive the sum he requested as compensation for his son’s death in an industrial accident. Distraught with grief, Mrs. White persuades her husband to wish for the return of their son, and later that night knocking is heard at their door. Mr. White identified their son’s body, saw how badly mutilated he was by the accident, and can’t prevent himself from thinking how being buried for the past ten days might not have improved matters. And so White deploys the remaining wish, just as his wife flings open the door and – to Mr. White’s relief – discovers no one is there: “A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery…”

However, the lesson of “The Monkey’s Paw” cannot be simply that magick is evil or inevitably produces harm, because the fakir who made the spell is described as “a very holy man”, and his magick (unlike White’s) is successful in realising its purpose. Yet the demonstration of the fakir’s teaching is made at the expense of others who fail to see in advance that by using the paw and asserting their own desire, they are in fact subjecting themselves to someone else’s will.

Is it not odd that a morality tale highlighting the inadequacy of individual will should hinge so crucially upon language? “Getting monkeyspawed” usually implies a magickal intention that is verbally incomplete or ambiguously worded, as in the example of Boffo and I screwing ourselves over with the word “balance”. Wiccans habitually append the expression “an it harm none” onto their magickal intentions, and it might be supposed that if Mr. White had taken this simple measure it would have protected him from much distress, or at least have posed a greater challenge to the fakir’s intentions. Yet the Wiccans, sweet as they may be, are really only hedging the issue, because identifying what we don’t want to happen (i.e. harm) has always been easier than ascertaining and taking responsibility for our true desire.

And is it not equally odd how the notions of imposing will and of faults in linguistic expression match so closely the two definitions of magick bequeathed to us by Crowley? Namely: (1) ‘the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will’ (1913: 124); but also (2) his less-quoted definition of magick as ‘a disease of language’ (1913: 185). What is this strange link in magick between the vulnerability of will and the inadequacy of language?

“Disease of language” is an expression taken by Crowley from Max Müller’s ideas on the formation of myths. Müller asserted that myths were a linguistic corruption caused when abstract concepts become personified (1866: 12). Crowley describes – for instance – how Thoth was originally just a guy who invented writing (1913: 185), not the terrible ibis-headed deity that sprang into being after writing itself was personified. Yet the advantage of personification is the creation of a linguistic hook to assist further thought. Magick, like myth, Crowley suggests, is a linguistic process for bringing the abstract into manifestation through personification.

Man with the head of an ibis writing in a book.
Thoth. Supernatural being, or just a regular guy who happened to invent writing?

From this perspective, magick as ‘Change in conformity with Will’ is complementary, for when we will this too is a process of personification: we experience an impulse and then we own it and experience it as “ours”. Will is the personification of desire, because each time we say “It is my will…”, this is an identification with experience. Suddenly, a desire belongs to someone; it becomes what that someone wants. The act of willing brings into existence an entity every bit as mythological as Thoth: the I. For if the disease of language is personification, then every “I”, “me” and “mine” is a symptom.

Given that magick consists in personification of or identification with desire, this creates the possibility of intentions that fulfil a desire which turns out not to be “ours”. In the case of Boffo and I, we both experienced headaches when we actually wanted to be free from them. A desire was fulfilled, but the identification with that desire was not. We got what we did not want because we identified a desire rather than identifying with it. We fell victim to language in its literal mode rather than the diseased form in which magick resides. Our language wasn’t diseased enough to prevent what happened from fitting the intention. If our language had been diseased enough there would have been only what we wanted in the intention (because it would have been “ours”), and so what actually happened wouldn’t have appeared to fit, and would have passed without notice.

In “The Monkey’s Paw”, presumably Mr. White is identified with the desires he expresses in his three wishes. However, we have seen already that there is another desire in play, the desire of the fakir, which is namely that others shall realise their wants are ineffectual and that they are subject purely to fate. Anything Mr. White wishes for is therefore foiled from the outset. He cannot use language magically to personify his desire, because he himself is a personification within the diseased language of the fakir, a personification of the typical person who is incapable of realising his desire.

The only wish of Mr. White’s that is fulfilled is the wish to send back his son to the grave. As a personification, Mr. White’s desire to cease desiring is the only one that can be met, which is associated in the tale with wishing dead the one that he loves.

“The Monkey’s Paw” is a morality tale, a genre that relies on personification to transmit its message. At this level, the fakir is presumably a personification also – but of what? A number of possibilities suggest themselves. Maybe he represents the Divine, as the ultimate source of all experience. On a more psychological level, maybe he is the unconscious. Or maybe he is language itself. In any case, he represents a force that alienates us from our desire. What the story seems to demonstrate is not that magick is necessarily evil, but that its efficacy – and ours – is undermined when we are barred from the process of expressing and exploring our own desire. When we cannot use diseased language to personify desire, we are trapped in a nightmarish world where what is said is literally what is, with no space for change.

The horror of “The Monkey’s Paw” is how we cease to be people and become personifications when our capacity to wish is taken away. Magick fails not when we wish for too much, but when we are prevented from engaging with our true desires.


Crowley, A. (1913 [2000]) Magick: Liber ABA Book Four. Weiser: York Beach, ME.

Jacobs, W.W. (1902 [1906]) “The Monkey’s Paw”. In: The Lady of the Barge. Sixth edition. London & New York: Harper & Brothers.

Müller, M. (1866) Lectures on the Science of Language. Fifth edition. London: Longmans & Green.