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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hooked on the New Paganism

I used to love action movies. But once you've seen the same stereotypical hero beat the tar out of the same interchangeable villain for the umpteenth time, you get the urge to change channels. Then again, there aren't a lot of options.

If you're tired of shoot 'em-ups, you can tune into talk shows about sexual disorders that would have you believe all men are either skirt-chasers or impotent.

Then you've got musical programming, though there's a lot less music on TV these days and a lot more babbling pop stars. Studio audiences squeal mindlessly on command because betraying the slightest sign of intelligence or self-control is considered bad form.

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The situation is unlikely to improve, since we are confronted with a well-organized industry that serves both commercial and ideological functions. Show biz does not so much entertain us as shape popular consciousness, filling the niche once controlled by the Soviet Communist Party's propaganda wing.

In a cynical and materialistic society, show biz takes the place of religion, creating its own short-lived, unstable but popular idols and cults.

Posters cover walls where amulets and icons once hung, and while we used to hand down myths about gods and heroes to our children, now there are glossy magazines and TV shows about the lives of the rich and famous. It's glitzy and cheap, but what can you do? Times change.

Gods of antiquity embodied forces of nature, passions of men and archetypes of human life -- and thus were entirely real. Today's idols reproduce advertising stereotypes of consumer society, and are therefore thoroughly artificial.

The aim is to make us consumption junkies. Post-modern gods and heroes owe their rise not to talent but producers' whims. That's why so many stars these days are so hard to tell apart, rolling off the "Star Factory" assembly line like so many auto parts.

Individuality and talent are even a hindrance, because they make a performer less predictable, manageable and most importantly less marketable. The intelligent and talented can make it, but only if they conceal these qualities on their way to the top. Producers have replaced priests as keepers of the sacraments. Ancient pagan priests also preserved treasures, built pyramids and erected statues. By deifying pharaohs and emperors they lent a fairy tale quality to their deeds, but at least the deeds were real.

The Soviet propaganda machine deluged us with brochures, banners and a seemingly endless stream of huge public events. Now show biz has caught on to the trick. The culture is virtual, its pyramids imaginary. It doesn't ask for handouts from the state or the public, for it is hugely profitable. But we do not always bring our offerings to the temple of pop culture voluntarily.

Advertising finances the huge fees paid to stars and producers, but the cost is added to the price of the goods we buy. Each purchase unwittingly contributes to the financial and symbolic pyramid of the new paganism. After all, self-deception must be self-financing.

The new paganism redistributes wealth from the real economy to the virtual one. The gods of antiquity were more easily sated with smoke from sacrificial fires. Fantastic fees are part of the star-worship. While the public condemns politicians and businessmen for this sort of behavior, it deifies the stars. Now we entrust political power to living deities like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And yet the pyramid of the new paganism will not stand anywhere near as long as the structures of the ancient Egyptians. Pyramids of stone endure; financial pyramids collapse. It would be pointless to seek fiery letters on our TV screens, but they may be burning already on the crumbling walls of our rundown city suburbs.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.