Who Can Save Us From Western Civilisation?
by Fergus Downie (February 2016)
Vanity made the revolution. Liberty was only a pretext. -- Napoleon
For the poor, every meal is a triumph and to struggle for your daily existence is to live without the brooding sense of futility that haunts intellectuals, and, for all the lip service paid to the Proletarian spectre, it has always paled beside the mass expansion of higher education as a revolutionary force. Beside the wounded armour propre of educated men, the misery of the destitute is a small thing and modern societies for all their progressivist pieties have experienced more problems absorbing the learned than the ignorant. Tsarist Russia with its disastrous reservoirs of unemployable graduates is an object lesson in the dangers these 'non-creative men of words’ pose to any civilized society and it is from the ranks of the latter that most of the fanatics of the twentieth century have been drawn. The dominance of frustrated intellectuals in the mass movements of the twentieth century – one thinks instantly of the bohemian corporal and the coterie of failed writers and poets of the Nazi movement - is too obvious to overlook and the psychological attraction of these types to violent mass movements was obvious to the most gifted novelists of the belle époque. Henry James' Princess Casamissima, and Conrad’s Secret Agent with their vivid portraits of men set apart from the productive commerce of mankind by a mixture of conceit and willful indolence (the majority of revolutionists as Conrad notes are the ‘enemies of discipline and fatigue’) were acute prophets of these new men and it is the curse of the so called knowledge society that such maladjusted personalities are never in short supply. One of the perennial charms of Marxism is that it provides a crutch for this inflated self worth, and although in the most prosaically bourgeoisie and classless of civilizations, its mass appeal has always been muted; it has for that very reason always held a special appeal to intellectuals looking too engrave status distinctions against the common mob.
By the thirties as Lionel Trilling noted, most of the American intellectual class had moved decisively to the left and the charm of Old World metaphysics, as Rafael Ladani’s portentously titled The Frankfurt School at War indicates, this extended well beyond the staid confines of academia. War is a great solvent of tradition and as is now well known the Research Branch of the Office for Strategic Studies was something of a forging house for the intellectual fads of the sixties counter-culture, many of which began their disastrous shelf lives as futile attempts to explain the psychic and social roots of fascism. The results, as anyone forced to wade through the dreary academic sermons dressed up as intelligence knows, is distinctly underwhelming and it is doubtful whether the US war effort derived more benefit from mobilizing Marxists than the Nazis gained from astrologers. Why this should have surprised anyone even at the time is something of a mystery. Like most Communist fellow travellers they had failed spectacularly to see the Nazis coming (Trotsky was a notable exception), and even after a decade in which to think again, Neumann was still re-treading the Comintern's stale orthodoxy of fascism as the final crisis of capitalism. Behemoth, the colossal door-stopper which established him, against all the odds, as a prophet on the Third Reich is numbed by an almost autistic lack of perspective on the elemental drives of human behaviour and it is scarcely surprising that such a mind might miss the animal roar of the thirties. Keats’ negative capability – the ability to remain open to the world and all its marvels without condensing it into formulas - is alien to the ideological mind and in practice Neumann, like most progressive intellectuals drained all the horror of Nazism in a welter of arid Marxising clichés. Doubtless, as Orwell noted of progressive intellectuals like H.G. Wells, they were too sane to understand the modern world, and had they been liberals this lacunae might have been overlooked. Naïveté is after all part of liberalism’s integral charm. To men solemnly sermonising on the unity of theory and practice, this inability to grasp essential distinctions is less easily overlooked, and it made for a poor political antennae.
For all their talk of praxis, they traded in lifeless abstractions, and when encountering opponents who thought with their blood, their limitations were obvious. Though Adorno's obiter on Auschwitz is invariably cited as the height of good taste, he came no closer to grasping the peculiar sui generis intensity of Nazi anti-Semitism than Neumann whose notorious Spearhead theory was accepted without demur by most of the institute. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment anti-Semitism appears as a detail of history rooted in the conditions of the Enlightenment and as anyone forced to wade through the sub-Nietzschean aphorisms would have to concede, the effect is not completely edifying. A characteristic sample:
There is no genuine anti-Semitism, and certainly no such thing as a born anti-Semite. The adults to whom the cry for the blood of Jews has become second nature do not know the reason why any more than the young people who are called upon to spill that blood. Those in command who know the reasons, do not hate the Jews and do not love their own followers. But the hatred felt by the led, who can never be satisfied economically or sexually, knows no bounds.
Economically or sexually? It would be difficult to think of a passage which feels so tastelessly inappropriate and it lays out the passionless tone of a work intent on establishing a moral equivalence between the most prosaic liberal democracy and all the grim terrors of the Third Reich. Having missed fascism in Germany, Adorno was the first to discover it in Tinseltown, and being a German professor he could infuse his genteel prejudices with metaphysical pathos.
It would be ridiculous, he intoned in one of those flashes of profundity that dazzled sixties audiences, to reproach chewing gum for being an affront to metaphysics’ good taste, but one could probably show that Wrigley’s profits and their Chicago palace were due to its operation of a social function consisting in the reconciliation of men with their impoverished conditions of existence and dissuading them from criticizing them. It’s a matter of explaining that chewing gum, far from being harmful to metaphysics, is itself metaphysical.
There is an irresistible urge when reading this solipsism from Horkheimer to think it’s a joke but German humour, famously, is no laughing matter and in the sixties these intellectual earthquakes were taken as the green shoots of the Marxist theory of culture. Marx had said little on the subject and his dense hydraulics of base and superstructure left little space for it - Adorno by contrast ranged tirelessly and flatulently on the revolutionary potential of atonal music, and his strictures against mass culture – so iconically bound up with American national character extended Marxism’s appeal amongst an educated class more repelled by the vulgarity of bourgeois society than its oppressiveness. Bourgeoisie needless to say in this context is clearly code for democratic, and for these snob Bolsheviks, Marxism had an essentially aesthetic appeal, which dragged it away from the factory floor. As Kalokowski noted, they had discovered culture and lost a proletariat.
The Authoritarian Personality
The central problem, to which all the contortions of cultural Marxism are a set of overworked footnotes, was the damp squib of the proletarian revolutionary and the intellectuals' unsated penchant for violent solutions. When the Soviets came to Russia they unleashed revolution, famine and civil war. In Germany, as Marcuse found to his disgust, the soldiers were soon electing their officers and handing over their power to a moderate social democratic government, which, in the most abject display of trade union consciousness set greater store in meeting the essentials of life than the pursuit of warped utopian fantasies. With several million men to demobilise under conditions of near famine and a peasant food strike looming, Ebert's abandonment of revolutionary pyrotechnics was not something that most German workers felt the need to second guess, but for Marcuse, briefly a participant in the Spartacist uprising, this act of apostasy beckoned and prompted forays into the young science of psychoanalysis. That Marxists should have found any succour in Freudian speculations is not something that could easily have been predicted by Freud’s theories. The general temperature of Civilisation and Its Discontents, for all its profanity, presented its readers with the impeccably reactionary conclusion that civilisation was a fragile achievement resting on the repression of precisely those saturnine impulses sixties radicals wished to indulge. Freud himself was dismissive of any notion that there was a political solution to what he considered the permanent biological sources of human conflict. Still, this was the language of smutty iconoclasm and buried in the footnotes there was enough material for a left deviationist strain to emerge. Freud's theory of neuroses after all conceded that repression could be overdone and if this could be attributed to the dehumanising tendencies of capitalism an unlikely synthesis of Marx and Freud was possible after all. Reich's Mass Psychology of Fascism, Fromm's Fear of Freedom and Marcuse’s indispensable student bible Eros and Civilisation are all clunking tributes to this notion of fascism as a collective hallucination rooted in surplus repression, and they established the basic template for the sixties genital obsessions. In the therapy friendly culture of North America, where psychoanalysis had slipped its leash early the audience for this code science was considerable and a dreadful book like the Authoritarian Personality virtually sold itself.
Looked at from the vantage point of 65 years, with its comically worded F questionnaire it is difficult to credit the influence it exercised on post-war intellectuals unless one takes seriously the need of liberals like Hofstadter to give their prejudices scientific airs. That conservatism was stronger amongst the stupid classes was already a given. They could claim no better an authority than the impeccably reactionary Lord Salisbury who had intended it as a compliment: to have this confirmed by the combined talents of Berkley’s psychology department and be handed the additional coup that it was fascism in embryo was a huge bonus. How answers to questions such as 'some people are born with an urge to jump from high places’ could be used to identify American Nazis is doubtless something that will engage great minds for some time to come, but it is no small irony that a critique of authoritarianism should have proceeded, in the manner of Soviet psychiatry, by attributing psychological flaws to their opponents and by voiding politics of any of the substance of human freedom. Still, it grew legs. In the wake of the Authoritarian Personality even the most staid conservative theorists - one thinks instantly of the Seymour Martin Lipset's desiccated ennui spreading political science - sought to anchor their thought in this kind of debauched pseudo-science and the accompanying Freudian cult did much to loosen solidarity with the traditional object of their devotions. Orthodox Marxism was, for all its combustible material a producers creed: it remained faithful to the disciplined virtues that saved the working class from sliding into the lumpenproletariat, but if Marx’s views on criminals and the lumpenproletariat – ‘those social scum of dubious means and origins’- reveal him as a thoroughly conventionally Victorian figure in the realm of personal morality, the New Left pointedly lent its authority to the seamier elements of la boheme. In the hands of Marcuse these roués became the redeemers of a decaying capitalist civilisation and as the diploma disease expanded the audience for this kind of infantile leftism, these infatuatuations spread exponentially. The charm of the Marcusian vision to an over-credentialed generation spared the necessity of productive employment scarcely requires explanation; permanent adolescence is much easier than permanent revolution and these juvenile excursions went hand in hand with that voyeuristic titillation with violence which comes so easily to frustrated intellectuals. Mailer's disgusting rationalisation of the murder of a shopkeeper in the influential and revealingly titled Beat tract ‘The White Negro’, strewn promiscuously with invitations to cathartic violence, was a low point from which the sixties could never redeem itself; and it flowed seamlessly enough from that decade’s empty jargon of authenticity and its singular lack of perspective. To the sensitive illiterates being churned out of America’s faculties any frustrated desire was an act of oppression which called for a violent riposte and Marcuse’s notion of repressive tolerance could not but cement that savage atrocity of mind Burke warned about in a previous generation of revolutionaries.
The worst of the politics of revolution is this: they temper and harden the breast in order to prepare it for the desperate strokes which are sometimes used in extreme occasions. But as these occasions may never arrive, the mind receives a gratuitous taint; and the moral sentiments suffer not a little, when no political purpose is served by the depravation.
Of these taints Marcuse had plenty but they played well to the temper of the times.
Culture Death – Sex All the Time
Unlike Adorno and Horkheimer who took fright at the student movement, Marcuse indulged every passing enthusiasm. Few intellectuals offered a more vivid spectacle of that prostitution of the intellect which an excess of democracy can bring about and his philosophy, such as it was, looks like little more than an infantile totalitarian temptation. Asked what his utopia might look like Marcuse spoke glowingly of ‘a resurgence of pregenital polymorphous sexuality’ that ‘protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality’. He recommends returning to a state of ‘primary narcissism’ in which one will find ‘the redemption of pleasure, the halt of time, the absorption of death: silence, sleep, night, paradise – the Nirvana principle not as death but as life.
It is a characteristically adolescent vision and it is worth noting how, for all its purported modernity, the radical Left’s vision slides into the primitive organic metaphors that German intellectual traditions prepared it for. In Marx this was obvious, as we have noted previously his famous pages on alienation are a tribute to German Romantic influences which could migrate just as easily to the volkish strains of the reactionary Right, but in Marcuse who shared the Frankfurt School’s infatuation with Spengler and Heidegger this animus against industrial modernity was even more pronounced. The vision, for all the nominal obeisance to Marx, more aligned to the spirit of Rousseau, whose cult of feeling, and sentimentalised childhood innocence chimed well with the kidult fantasies of that decade. The results as anyone watching small children play could have predicted, was unspeakably vicious and David Horowitz's excellent dissection of the Weathermen terrorist cult gives a revealing glimpse into the Hobbesian war of all against all that pervaded these communal utopias.
Amidst all the carnage of this over-sexed drug addled oblivion the inevitable self-parodying priorities of infantile leftism bloomed. As the personal became political, it was inevitable that sex, suitably cheapened and reduced to its Kinsey Report bare minimum of release-restraint, would dominate their Maoist self-criticism sessions, and sometimes the dialectical tensions were explosive. Bernadine Dohrn, a particularly skilled sexual predator attracted the reproach from Mark Rudd that ‘power flowed from her c….t’. Uproar followed and after atoning for the implied sexism the rebuke softened: Bernadine’s c…..t in fact ‘goes to wherever the power is’. Doubtless to be young at such a dawn was very heaven, but even so one imagines you can have too much of a good thing. Whilst the slogans of the counter-culture screamed liberation, the practice of its most determined cults aimed to obliterate the individual and void the sexual act of personality – a feat pulled off in just the kind of bonobo-like promiscuity Aldous Huxley had depicted in Brave New World. There in the sterile utopia of the future, a regime of sexual indulgence is encouraged, not in order to liberate, but in order to inculcate a grinding social quiescence where the trade-offs between sensation and culture are clearly set out.
Responding to the Shakespeare besotted savage’s question of why the new society can no longer produce tragedy, Mr Mond lays bare the consequences of this mandatory hedonism:
"Because our world is not the same as Othello's world. You can't make flivvers without steel–and you can't make tragedies without social instability. The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get. They're well off; they're safe; they're never ill; they're not afraid of death; they're blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they're plagued with no mothers or fathers; they've got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they're so conditioned that they practically can't help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there's soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty!" He laughed. "Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy!"
The Savage was silent for a little. "All the same," he insisted obstinately, "Othello's good, Othello's better than those feelies."
"Of course it is," the Controller agreed. "But that's the price we have to pay for stability. You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We've sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead."
For all the daring dialectics this is exactly where the revolution led, and in the years since its publication, Huxley's dystopian novel has come to look more like prophecy than satire. The politics of Happiness pursued by British governments is nothing more than the exchange of culture for animal gratifications described by Huxley. The telescoping of the generations (‘at sixty-four tastes are what they were at seventeen’) he captured what is too ubiquitous for anything more than gentle parody. It leaves nevertheless a more troubling legacy than 50 year old women in miniskirts. To obliterate sexual taboos and any notion of high culture which could firm up the moral authority of adulthood is no small matter, and if you endorse the premises you must live with the conclusions.
It is Forbidden to Forbid – The Perversions of Cohn Bendit
Like so many student radical icons, Cohn Bendit exchanged violent street theatre for trendy pedagogy and the biographical reflections of his experiences in an experimental kindergarten in Frankfurt in the seventies, leave little to the imagination
"My constant flirt with all the children soon took on erotic characteristics. I could really feel how from the age of five the small girls had already learnt to make passes at me. It's hardly believable. Most of the time I was fairly defenceless."
Later he added: "It has happened to me several times that a few children opened the flies of my trousers and started to stroke me. I reacted differently each time according to the circumstances, but their desire confronted me with problems. I asked them: 'Why don't you play with each other, why have you chosen me and not other children?' But when they insisted on it, I then stroked them. For that reason I was accused of perverted behaviour."
In an age where our public virtue is exhausted by a kitsch sentimentality about a childhood we have profaned, Bendit’s nauseating comments are particularly shocking and have come back to haunt his career in a way that was barely conceivable in earlier decades. As late as 1986 the German Green party passed a resolution advocating the legalization of non-violent sexual relations between adults and children. This clear endorsement of pedophilia was only pushing the premises of the counter-culture to its logical conclusion, and it is these that provide the real problem. Perverts are every society’s misfortune but to give them an ideological warrant is a much bigger problem. For all his cringing exculpations Bendit’s contextual explication, to use the favoured Tariq Ramadan formulae, only restates the problem. Elaborating a particularly unpromising and ill advised line of defence in Der Spiegel, Bendit was at pains to point out that he did not have the courage of his convictions he was in a provocative fashion trying to provoke bourgeois conventions:
"One of the problems in the kindergarten was in our opinion that conservatives acknowledged children's sexuality in a shamefaced way, whereas we wanted to support children to develop it without constraint."
Good to know but how reassuring exactly is this?
Lenin had, doubtless wisely, punctuated the Bolshevik revolution with the injunction to shoot more professors. He knew revolutions needed puritans and, whatever its genocidal detours, the Soviets held on to their high culture whilst the likes of Warhol pushed his cretinous pop art. Montages of tinned soup which were in their own way a tribute to the influence of the Frankfurt aesthetic, which, in its characteristically de haut en bas manner, sought to drag the sublime through the dust. No artistic theory has chimed more perfectly with the postmodern temper than Walter Benjamin’s "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" - its stress on the disappearance of aura attaching to creative genius - a perfect analogue to the death of the author preached by literary deconstructionism, and, like it, giving succor to every talentless hack and lazy student who could gaze at his navel long enough.
Before the sixties, this barely mattered, few individuals in an age of scarcity and exacting labour discipline could go bohemian and walk lobsters in Brooklyn as Baudelaire famously did on the left Bank (doubtless a wise choice for an aesthete – as the great man noted, ‘he does not bark and he knows the deeps’) and the exclusiveness of the elites, allowed more scope for that sublimation of impulse Karl Mannheim saw as necessary for great art. Come the sixties, everyone was an artist, and though we are inclined to smile indulgently on much of it, this debauching of taste has its serious side. Erasing the boundary between art and life was the central preoccupation of the sixties radicals and the characteristic praxis was one of gutter nihilism played out in the warped imaginations of third rate performance artists whose productions, saturated with violence, drug induced hallucinations and cophrophagic perversion could now claim a sophisticated Marxist imprimatur. Prior to the deluge, most explorers of aesthetics would have taken their cue from Baumgartner’s deeply pious notion that a picture or poem was 'a sensuous representation of an image of perfection' and had a pointedly edifying purpose (as Burke noted, to love one’s country, one’s country must be lovely) - the motive of Brecht, Adorno and Benjamin by contrast was to shock and alienate. This is a challenge, needless to say, which modern art has risen to with aplomb, and unlike Brecht, who at least meditated earnestly on how to bring about the ‘estrangement effect’ in his productions, today’s radicals need no more imagination than is required to drop a crucifix in a jar of urine. Piss Christ may not be exactly what Adorno had in mind by Verfremdungseffekt, but once you start pushing bad taste as a virtue it is a logical enough destination, and it is not to excuse this infantile posturing to note it yields ever diminishing returns – you need, after all something solid and bourgeoisie to kick against to get the effect- and this is the essential reason why the Rite of Spring could cause uproar whilst Andre Serrano’s cutting edge sequel to Piss Christ – the Shit Show (do I really need to enlarge?) barely provokes a yawn.
Horkheimer and Adorno for all their daring wordplay soon came to regret their creations. They were in their bones German professors and the war against the intellect waged by wild eyed visionaries doubtless brought back uncomfortable memories. Inter-war Germany had been awash with these bearded, back to nature freaks too, and the end result had not been pretty (Heidegger saw enough similarities to endorse both the Nazi students of the thirties and the campus bums of the sixties). As the sixties unfolded, Adorno, held back by an ingrained misanthropy from the kind of adolescent slumming indulged by Marcuse, became increasingly out of touch with the decade's zeitgeist as the sixties heaped up its humiliations. In defending the US war effort in Vietnam, he might be seen as the one of the first converts to the Marxist heresy of neo-conservatism, and worse was soon to follow. Though he had stoked libidinal fires with his pen, a confrontation with a bare breasted female in his classroom revealed a particularly detumescent will to power and similar acts of propaganda by deed prompted his flight from the chaos of sixties lecture halls. With his vocation in ruins only his unerring gift for prophecy survived. Envisaging a restoration of his powers at the foot of the Matterhorn he retired to the Swiss town of Zermatt and promptly died of a heart attack.
The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.
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