Somewhere between anarch and anarchist

Saturday, May 5th, 2018

While describing crypto-provocateur Cody Wilson, Jacob Siegel brings up Ernst Jünger — not the young Ernst Jünger of Storm of Steel, but the old Ernst Jünger who wrote Eumeswil:

I’ve never seen Wilson mention Junger, but the affinities, in their thought at least, are striking. Junger was a highly decorated German soldier in the First World War and served in Paris during the second. He was a scathing critic of both the Weimar Republic and Hitler, who he opposed, though only passively, from Nazism’s right flank among the mandarin military class. His essays and fiction made him a central figure in Germany’s “Conservative Revolution.” Where Nietzsche had developed “the myth of the superman as an aristocratic alternative to democratic leveling,” writes Stanford professor of comparative literature and Telos editor Russell Berman, “the conservative revolutionaries, and especially Junger, tried to identify a new heroism emerging precisely out of the technological world of the new mass society.”

“Junger represents a new kind of political romanticism, one that links technology to the primordial forces of the will,” writes historian Jeffrey Herf. Earlier German reactionaries sought to restore a pastoral order broken by industrialization, but Junger charged headlong in the opposite direction, into technological change. He reimagined the conservative opposition to liberal individualism through an apotheosis of man and machinery. Junger’s ecstatic embrace of technology as a political agent anticipated, by a half century, the recent vogue for singularity theory, transhumanism, and other tech-themed glosses of apocalypse and utopia.

Still, history — and especially modern German history — was not kind to Junger’s exuberant futurism. Before the Nazis, Junger celebrated mass society as the forge of a new heroic identity. In the decades after the war, as he also began taking a lot of acid and mescaline, he pondered how to preserve the individual against the threat of mass society. Culminating with the 1977 novel Eumeswil, Junger developed a new theory of heroic individualism embodied in the character of the “anarch.”

The world of Eumeswil, Berman writes in the novel’s introduction, is a “dystopia of the managed society. Not only do the dictator and his apparatus maintain a system of extensive surveillance, but the inhabitants themselves participate eagerly in their own oppression.” The result is the loss of the individual within a “depoliticized culture that nonetheless generates broad loyalty to the regime.”

[...]

To escape the administrative-surveillance state, Junger devised the anarch. While “anarchists slide into ideology and a repetition of domination,” writes Berman, “in contrast, the anarch strategizes to maintain independence in the face of the challenges of the existing order.” The problem is distinguishing the real specimen from counterfeit versions. “It is especially difficult to tell the essential from that which is similar to and indeed seems identical with it. This also applies to the anarch’s relation to the anarchist,” wrote Junger.

Eumeswil’s titular anarch, Martin, defines his philosophical outlook by his need to “live in a world which I ultimately do not take seriously.” Here, by contrast, is what Cody Wilson says when a documentary camera is pointed at him: “Of course it’s O.K. to kill. That’s got to be high up on people’s lists. That’s gotta be one of the first options you do to solve a problem and everyone knows it. You must allow aggression and violence to be central to your philosophy or you’re not serious.”

Junger began with a wish to see individualism subsumed in a totalizing state geared perpetually toward war. But he ended his life trying to save the individual from authoritarian mass society, through the cultivation of a remote inner life. Somewhere between anarch and anarchist, Wilson oscillates between these unreconciled poles of Junger’s thought.

“Reactionary modernism” was Jeffrey Herf’s term for the proto-fascist milieu of Junger and his peers. The crypto-anarchist-alt-right alliance, by extension, is reactionary postmodernism. It combines skepticism towards progress with faith in technology, elitist contempt for the masses (a tic eloquently described by Baffler writer Angela Nagle), and related disdain for the corrupt elite. And it is, in a typically postmodern sense, suspicious of the relationship between narrative and reality. Binding this set of hostilities and doubts together at the level of political theory is the conviction that our reigning administrative and cultural powers form an interlocking regime that stifles all dissent even at the level of the imagination.

Comments

  1. Kirk says:

    It’s all bullshit, all the way down. Through the crust, the mantle, and on down to the theoretical elephants and turtles.

    What we’ve got going in most of philosophy is a mess–You go looking for answers, and what you find, more often than not, is a mass of things phrased as answers that are really just clothed as such, wearing masquerade dress while really being more questions and poorly conceived foundational assumptions.

    It’s like with most of the rest of human endeavor–We’re perpetually doing the same damn thing, and then wondering why it didn’t work, just like the last several hundred times we tried it. Doesn’t matter which side of the political divide you’re on, either–Venezuela is a perfect example of the left screwing it up by the numbers, yet again. Nobody wants to recognize that fact, though, and say “Hey, ya know… This is turning out just like it did everywhere else we’ve tried this, and I’m starting to think it might not actually, y’know… Work.”

    Various other schemes coming from the theoretical right are parallel to this, but since they’ve not had quite the same level of dysfunction, they don’t have quite the same level of lethality or notoriety. Same-same, result-wise.

    We’re going to have to throw out the entire set of assumptions we’ve been working at, and begin going at a lot of these issues from a pragmatic and more realistic starting point. Mass movements inevitably seem to wind up being run by freaking psychotic sociopaths, and that’s likely a function of the fact that the “mass” is pretty much psychotic itself, in most of its manifestations. If you have a bunch of rational people, they don’t tend to form “masses” in the first damn place… The “mob mentality” is demonstrably one of incoherent insanity, in most recorded cases. I’ll be damned if I can think of one counterexample in all my reading of history, over the years. And, believe me, I’ve looked for them…

    The scriptwriters for “Men in Black” had it right–One man is sane and intelligent. Men in groups? LOL… I don’t know what the hell it is that leads to it, but groups that spontaneously create themselves out of random crowds don’t have a really good record of doing rational things, once you get past a certain size. It may be an ineluctable characteristic trait of these groups, past a certain critical mass. And, it points to the conclusion that men like Junger are not looking in the right places for wisdom…

  2. Graham says:

    I’m left both satisfied and profoundly unsatisfied with that as a description of where Junger sits with the Conservative Revolutionaries, and where that less than particularly homogeneous movement sat with regard to the Nazis, other fascists, and other types of conservatives and reactionaries of that era. When one remembers that Stauffenberg and others of his circle were both devout Catholics and followers of Stefan Georg, one is left all the more confused about those times and men. Given only a slight shove, Georg doesn’t strike an Anglo-Saxon liberal as all that different from a Nazi of the more academic-minded poetic sort.

    I am also struck by the idea Junger represents an earlier version of the singularity. Even with a grounding in Italian futurism and its links to fascism, I never quite thought of that. That makes me think less well of him.

    Of course, I can’t actually find any contending political ideology from 1789 to today with the slightest chance of durable stability other than the sort of melange of progressivism, staticness, consumerism and technology we have now. And I’m not sure it is stable, at that. In considering it might be, I’m letting Francis Fukuyama shape my thinking. I had always hoped he would be wrong, and now fear he was right. Perhaps we’ll end up building the Matrix after all, to both embrace and escape the end of history.

    A future as relatively mundane and recognizable as Star Trek, with captains like Kirk or Picard quoting Shakespeare and Melville, seems decreasingly likely for us.

    If I might quote philosopher John McClane, “Put all that together, I don’t know what the f*** it means. But we’ve got some bada**ed perpetrators and they’re here to stay.”

    I just don’t know which perpetrators I’m on the lookout for anymore. And here I thought the end of history was going to be one long forward projection of the Reagan/Thatcher Cold-War-winning formula into the future.

  3. Graham says:

    And here I was supposed to be cleaning up open tabs and some tasks on my work computer today.

    Now I’m contemplating re-watching Black Mirror as a set of futurist political texts.

  4. Kirk says:

    See, the thing that’s always struck me with guys like Junger… They’re looking for something that they’ve conceptualized as the “heroic”, and the question that’s always hit me, reading them, is this: Who the f**k needs heroes, anyway?

    Germany followed Hitler down the rathole of National Socialism primarily because the majority of the populace wanted a “hero” to follow… And, there they went. Junger denied Hitler, but the fact is that his ideology and writing set the stage for men like Hitler to advance to the head of the mob.

    What the hell would have been so difficult about working things out for themselves, and just doing the “right thing”, instead of waiting around for this “hero” to manifest himself? Could the German people not have managed that? Were they that lacking in ability, in self-confidence?

    These guys are really inextricably servile, seeking someone to provide them with guidance, and wisdom, thinking that they’re unable to do it on their own. Look for some mature self-reflection, some acknowledgment of human frailty and uncertainty? Ain’t there, in any of these philosophies–They all want the “perfect superman” to appear, and do everything right, all at once.

    Conceptually, the problem is prevalent throughout our society and civilization. The fools want perfection, strive for it, and fail to recognize that there is no inherently “perfect solution”, just an endless series of compromises that may or may not be fit for need at the moment.

    Look at the current picture in US small arms procurement; the idiots are wanting some kind of quantum improvement in lethality, and the ‘effing idiots can’t even properly define what they mean by the term “lethality” in the first damn place.

    They don’t know what they want, they just know that they want something world-changing… And, they’re wasting billions trying to attain it.

    The Navy is doing the same kind of foolish crap with the recent ship designs–The new carriers, with their dysfunctional electro-magnetic catapults? LOL… ‘Effing idiots thought that they were immune to the “new equipment failure model”, and didn’t design redundancy into the carriers, so now we’re stuck with billion-dollar white elephants that can’t be retrofitted to the old technology, and don’t work with the new crap they designed, either. Idiocy–An intelligent and pragmatic path would have been to do the overall design so as to be capable of fitting either design of catapult, and working from there to ensure that before we went to electric-only, that the damn system actually worked in the first place.

    But, nooooo… We had to go for the blue-sky idealized “perfect” path. That rarely, if ever, manifests itself before us.

    Philosophically, the mentality displayed in both arenas is typical of what is going wrong with our civilization across the board. Some moron educational theorist proposes that it would be more effective to teach something they invented called “whole language”, and then they abandon what we know does work, phonics, for this chimerical new fad that has proven to be a disaster. It’s not a good sign when some barely-graduated-from-high-school teacher in a one-room schoolhouse out on the prairies of yore had a higher success rate at teaching the three R’s than our vaunted products of the educational establishment today manage in their million-dollar schools with budgets over ten thousand dollars per student…

    There’s a broad swathe of things across our whole civilization that are like this, and which indicate that we’ve lost our damn minds. Where the hell is the pragmatic wisdom to realize that we’re imperfect humans, and instead of reaching for the idealized perfect world and the solutions that only dwell within that world, we ought to be setting our sights on things that are somewhat flawed, but at least, y’know, workable.

    I read idealists like Junger, and as someone put words in Goering’s mouth about “culture”, I want to reach for my weapons to check the loading: Because I’m pretty sure that the idealists are about to create conditions where I’m going to be forced to defend myself and mine against their rampant stupidity.

    The biggest damn thing I have against all these people like Junger is that they have no inward faith in themselves or others; they keep wanting that superman daddy to show up and fix things, never trying to do it for themselves or those they’re responsible for. Jungers leadership in WWI was not exemplary; he was not one of the men like Hutier or Rohr, who actually tried to do something about the trench conundrum. Junger was mostly all about being some swanning idiot who saw war as a mystic struggle between mythic heroes. The man was a nutter, in my opinion, and I suspect that he was one of those glory-hound officers I hated working around and for. It would be interesting to hear the opinions of any of his surviving subordinates, although from what I’ve been able to tell, there weren’t too damn many of those.

    There are times and places for heroism, but the reality is that they are very often not the ones the idealists imagine for themselves. A real hero in WWI would have been the guy who didn’t lead his platoon out into those “storms of steel”, but who carefully husbanded their lives and then only expended them when absolutely necessary; a real hero, as opposed to a poseur, would have been like Hutier or Rohr, seeking to come up with methods and tactics adapted to the new environment of war. Junger has always read to me like a vainglorious but well-meaning glory hound, to whom the impact of his own behavior was invisible.

  5. Wang Wei Ling says:

    Kirk, Well said!

    I’m with you. How can people not do the right thing for themselves, but instead wait for a hero? I don’t see many of today’s politicians much different than Mao or Stalin, except for the bloodshed, the mentality is the same. Most have a Messiah complex and want to be the ‘hero’ of the people.

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