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Walter Benjamin: Fascism and Crisis
The context of economic crisis and rising fascism cast a long, and fatal, shadow over Walter Benjamin's world in the Weimar Republic. This shadow strangely prefigures our own time.
By Andrew Robinson
Editor's Note: Preachers need to be able to lucidly understand the context into which they are preaching as well as the biblical text they are applying to this context. What follows is an especially helpful discussion of one of the most astute observers of 20th century history in the Weimar Period leading up to Nazism in Germany. Walter Benjamin was a member of the Frankfurt Institute of critical theory, a secular Jew, but as Jewish represents a "view from below" in terms of Hitler's genocide. Just as Jesus saw the power structure of his day "from below" so we are liable today to better understand truth by listening to those victimized by oppression in history. Consider the careful work here to understand the meaning of "fascism" and how it may apply to our own time in the United States now. This was originally published on August 14, 2013. (Image Source)
Precarity and Crisis in One Way Street
The collection of fragments titled ‘One-Way Street’ is an extended discussion of precarity and crisis in interwar Germany. Benjamin sees Germany – then in the midst of the Weimar period, before the Nazis took power – as caught up in a kind of regressive collectivism born of capitalism. The more people are driven by narrow private interests in their actions, the more they are determined by mass instincts.
These mass instincts are increasingly alienated from life. Benjamin believes this makes people insensitive in terms of how to escape a coming disaster. People are so rigidly attached to accustomed ways of life as to forfeit their intellect even in crisis. This insight has a certain literal significance in the fact that modern people cannot foresee natural disasters, whereas some indigenous groups and animals can. Some ecological radicals such as John Zerzan believe that alienated people have become massively insensitive to our bodies and context. Benjamin is mostly referring, however, to people’s lack of a revolutionary instinct in conditions of economic and political crisis.
Benjamin sees the crisis as much deeper than the economic level. Close relationships are thrown into crisis by the ‘piercing clarity’ cast on them by the crisis. The centrality of money disrupts relationships, undermining ‘trust, calm, and health’. It is corrosive of conviviality. (Later, Benjamin adds that life in common, such as eating, is important to maintain conviviality. Berlin was noticeably lacking in life in common). Similarly, ‘warmth is ebbing’ from everyday objects, which gently repel attachment and put up barriers against people. Objects feel like symbols of wealth or poverty, and nothing more. Human movements are impeded in their becoming by an intractable world which offers resistance to their unfolding. The cost of housing and transport destroy the feeling of freedom of domicile. Workers become surly and unfriendly, as representatives of materials which have become hostile. Nature also seems uncontrollable. Even urban areas feel as if they are at the mercy of elemental forces.
Personal reactions to this situation have an atomising, competitive effect. Each sees the general crisis but seeks exceptions for her/his own field of action. Hence there is a constant struggle to save the prestige of specific areas from the general collapse, rather than to reject the universal situation. As each tries to reconcile the survival of a particular zone with the general collapse, people become stuck in perspectival illusions arising from isolated standpoints.
To outsiders, the national temperament seems to have become barbaric and violent in an incomprehensible way. According to Benjamin, this appearance – invisible to those within the process – occurs because people are wholly subordinated, to ‘circumstances, squalor and stupidity’, to collective forces. The sense of any right to live individually has disappeared. People also develop a ‘frenetic hatred of the life of the mind’. They annihilate it through forming ranks, counting bodies and advancing.
Benjamin also discusses various everyday practices in this context. For instance, he argues that eroticism is subjugated to privacy in modern practices of flirting. Such private courting is really directed to the man’s competitors, not the woman. Benjamin calls for a more public and dialogical erotic practice. Similarly, the appreciation of cosmic powers can only occur collectively.
In analysing the interwar crisis in Germany, Benjamin criticises the ‘bourgeois’ response which sees catastrophe and instability in the event of dispossession. Instead, he argues that the phenomena of decline are themselves stable. People feel that ‘things can’t go on like this’ simply because they are subjectively affected, having benefited from the prior situation. (This is rather different from the permanent disaster he theorises in his theses on history). Benjamin calls on his contemporary readers to direct their gaze to ‘the extraordinary event in which alone salvation now lies’. He believes a sufficiently intense attention of this kind could bring about a miracle.
The crisis comes partly from the victory of the bourgeoisie. The idea of class war, Benjamin claims, is misleading. There is indeed a struggle, but not one where either contender can win. The bourgeoisie remains doomed whether it loses or not. The question is whether the bourgeoisie will self-destruct or be overthrown – and hence, whether thousands of years of cultural development can be continued. If the bourgeoisie is not beaten before a certain point of technological development, everything is lost. A contemporary reader might wonder whether this point has already been passed, as in the point in Baudrillard in which history is lost; or whether, perhaps, the onset of climate change is the pending end-point.
At a deeper level, Benjamin theorises a kind of ecological alienation. Human society has degenerated to the point where it greedily grasps at nature’s gifts. As a result, the earth becomes impoverished and ungenerous. The ‘sacrificial shafts’ dug into Mother Earth reveal a continued collective relationship to the cosmos. Yet this relationship has lost direction. Mastery has become a goal in itself. Technology should not be mastery of nature, but of the relationship between humanity and nature. This relationship should be substantive, ecstatic and creative. Living substance must once more conquer the frenzy of destruction.
Crisis also has an effect of making social construction unusually visible. Just as bombing lays bare the foundations of buildings, so crisis lays bare the unconscious or habitual basis on which lives are built. People usually pass through life, leaving behind their unconscious and their life-questions like foliage.
Poverty for instance is shamefully visible in phenomena such as begging. It is worsened in its experience by being shared so widely, so it cannot be endured in isolation. Benjamin denounces the growing hostility to beggars, contrasting it with their honoured position in various religions. He says that their presence is absolutely justified. They are, implicitly, symbolising the disavowed aspects of the present. The expulsion of beggars, it might be suggested, it part of the attempt to create individual spheres isolated from the general crisis.
It is informative, if scary, to compare this account of inter-war Germany to Britain today. Now as then, people are subordinated to mass forces through their capitalistic private interest. Now as then, belief in individual rights has deserted the majority. People take refuge in a repressive collectivism aimed against scapegoats. And people try to carve out personal zones of security from a general situation of crisis. Now as then, few question the neoliberal conjuncture which has created the crisis, even as it threatens total collapse. Now as then, capitalism is going through a large crisis which may be a crisis of overproduction.
Austerity and recession destabilise personal lives on a mass scale. They are simultaneously menacing and fascinating. Even some of the symptoms are the same – rising house prices, a loss of the freedom to move, surliness of workers and officials, impenetrability of spaces, the criminalisation of begging, generalised anxiety, a sense of impending (natural and artificial) risks. Are we, one might ask, in a Weimar period today?
Fascism and Aesthetics
The rise of fascism in Europe was perhaps the epochal transformation of Benjamin’s era, and had menacing overtones for him as a radical and a Jew. Benjamin offers an original theory of fascism, which situates it within cultural transformations. He rejects both the orthodox Marxist view that fascism is simply a dictatorship of finance capital, and the progressivist view that it is some kind of premodern or anti-modern relapse into barbarism. Instead, he argues that capitalism arises from particular changes in everyday culture, or ‘ideology’ in an Althusserian sense, arising from the development of capitalism.
In the epilogue to ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin argues that fascism seeks to respond to proletarianisation and massification without altering the property structure. It does this by giving the masses ‘a chance to express themselves’, as a substitute for power. It offers emotional rewards instead of material rewards.
Fascism logically leads to the aestheticising of politics. Politics is turned into the production of beauty, according to a certain aesthetic. This is achieved through an immense apparatus for the ‘production of ritual values’. Benjamin is thinking of the Nazi propaganda-machine, with its choreographed torch-lit marches and rallies, iconic posters and statues, and films such as Triumph of the Will. This machine is widely recognised as a forerunner of the modern PR industry.
Fascism is thus partly a product of spectacle. Benjamin relates it to the spectacular nature of commodities, which are transformed in their presence from simple objects to spectacle or phantasmagoria. Fascism expands the logic of spectacle into the field of politics, with its charismatic leaders, eye-catching posters, movie-like Manichean discourse, torchlit rallies, and powerful logos and symbols.
According to Benjamin, fascism inevitably leads to war. War is the only way to channel mass movements and intense emotions, without challenging the property system. It simultaneously serves, in classic Marxist fashion, to channel the forces of production which are blocked by the property system.
Some Marxists see crises such as those of the 1930s and today as crises of overproduction. This means that capitalism is in crisis because it can’t get people to consume as much as it can produce, usually because people aren’t being paid enough. As a result, people are left unemployed and machines and factories are left idle. People who adhere to this theory see the Second World War as a resolution of the crisis of overproduction. The state artificially inflated demand by producing weapons. It then destroyed a lot of other resources by using them. This got people producing again, and was a way out of the crisis.
Benjamin is unusual in linking this account to the cultural usefulness of war. For Benjamin, war does not only serve capitalism by consuming resources. It also provides a way to channel intense emotions and frustrations which would otherwise destabilise the system.
Benjamin links the fascist aesthetic to the Futurist Marinetti’s claim that ‘war is beautiful’. The Futurists were a mainly Italian art movement whose work celebrated modern technology, speed and power. Initially progressive, some of them went over to fascism. Their aesthetic is often associated by Benjamin with fascism. He viewed them as symptomatic of the aspect of fascism which glorified technology.
The aspect of war which can most easily be aestheticised is the display of technology, and the power of human agents as masters of powerful technology. In order to aestheticise war, it is necessary to edit out human suffering, whether of soldiers or civilians. Benjamin suggests, however, that destruction is integral to the process. Humanity is now so alienated that it can contemplate its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure.
Marinetti expected war to supply sensory and aesthetic enjoyment in a world changed by technology. This is the ultimate in alienation. Humanity observes itself from outside, as an object of contemplation. Benjamin sees this as the culmination of the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ – or in Marinetti’s slogan, ‘let art be created, let the world perish’. The appropriate response, according to Benjamin, is to politicise art.
War is further aestheticised by inter-war writers such as Ernst Jünger. In his ‘Theories of German Fascism’, engaging with Jünger, Benjamin extends his critique of fascistic trends in art. Jünger extends the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ to war. (This ‘war for war’s sake’ also appears in Deleuze’s digression on the bad type of war machine, which takes war as its object).
Mass technological warfare is an image of everyday actuality – the destructiveness and meaninglessness of mass alienated technology. But it appears to the likes of Jünger as a magical force of eternal war. This leads to a ‘mystical’ view of war: the state must show itself worthy of the magical forces of war.
For Benjamin, this is not simply a matter of false consciousness. Rather, it is derived from a particular ‘primal experience’, or constitutive trauma. Jünger was a professional soldier for whom warfare is the natural or habitual environment. His literature defends his particular professional habitus, his conventional way of life. He simply celebrates what he is familiar with, without any basis for preferring it. Benjamin asks, ‘Where do you come from? And what do you know of peace?’ The criticism here is that Jünger and those like him can’t extol war as preferable to peace, because they only know war.
The authors of war literature, according to Benjamin, are expressing a particular class perspective. Many of them are specialist soldiers, commandos and engineers – the military equivalent of the managerial class. The ideology of endless war, of a magical power of war, is implicitly portrayed as a kind of class ideology of the elite soldier.
These former soldiers were to become the social basis for fascism, as Benjamin recognised. Many of them graduated from the army to the Freikorps to the Nazi Stormtroopers. Today, this underlines the importance of demobilising and reintegrating former soldiers – many of them economically disadvantaged and war-traumatised – in the aftermath of conflicts. It also underlines the persisting importance of militarised masculinity in the securitisation of civilian spaces.
According to Benjamin, the literature he refers to is an effect of World War 1. Technological warfare has exhibited a disastrous gap between massive destructive effects of technology, and minimal moral illumination arising from such effects. This produces a kind of meaninglessness (a common theme in Frankfurt School work). The main danger today stems from the difficulties in organising human relationships in accord with the relationship to nature and technology, so as to use technology as a key to happiness instead of destruction. In short, people are losing control of their technology because they retain competitive relationships which lead to mass destruction. Benjamin sees his era as having the last chance to overcome this discrepancy. This would be a transition to socialism through the conversion of the world war into a global civil war.
Technological warfare dispenses with the symbols of heroism. War has become akin to sports in that its achievements are not so much personal as ‘record-setting’ – how many are killed. The escalating power to kill in huge numbers associated with gas warfare (and later, nuclear weapons) renders war extremely risky, and predominantly offensive (rather than defensive). The protection of civilians is lost. The winner is now the side which conquers the war, not the adversary, and avoids losing control of its meanings and effects.
Much of Benjamin’s approach applies equally, or even more, to contemporary warfare. The technological nature of warfare has only increased. The aestheticising of war is certainly present in modern politics. Indeed, it has only been aided by modern technology which captures the battlefield as if it were a video-game. Modern war footage imitates the aestheticisation of war in cinema, parading the geometrical beauty of technology and hiding the human effects of war. During the invasion of Iraq, only sources such as al-Jazeera focused on footage of human casualties. Western media filled their coverage with long-range explosion footage and displays of technological power.
Similarly, the ideology of the ‘magic’ of war, of ‘eternal war’, has reappeared – in the characteristic stance of the action hero, in the ‘endless war’ against terrorism, and in displaced form, in discourses of securitisation which impute heroic status to soldiers and police. Today, the risk-management of ‘security threats’ – ever more closely identified with a managerial stance – goes hand-in-hand with the technocratic glorification of those who carry it out. This could almost be seen as the conversion of Jünger’s class, the war-specialists, into paramilitary police.
In Benjamin’s account, fascism is closely connected to the spectacular and epic in film, literature, music and art. There is little question Benjamin would have related modern blockbuster movies to the fascist approach to art, particularly when they use special effects to aestheticise warfare. There is a certain vein of Marxist film criticism which takes an approach similar to Benjamin’s – although other critics may see its readings as too reductive.
On another level, the tabloid press offers fascistic expressive fulfilments to its readership. Tabloid stories seem to be selected less for their (often very low) truth-value or relevance to readers’ lives, but instead for their ability to produce particular emotions and channel their expression. One could almost term the tabloids an aesthetic force of moral outrage. They provide vicarious enjoyment from the repression stemming from the moral panics they instigate, while also maintaining enough dissatisfaction to prevent any sense of completion.
This raises the question of the relationship between fascism (and other movements of what I term the ‘reactive network’ type), and the expressive/instrumental dichotomy. Elsewhere, I have argued that transformative action is typically expressive, whereas the system encourages instrumental ways of relating. Yet Benjamin is here arguing that fascism is also emotionally expressive – indeed, this is the core of its power. Does this mean I’m wrong about the need for expressionism?
I would argue that Benjamin is right, but that a further division separates fascist expression from radical expression. Fascist and reactive movements are also deeply expressive, but on axes displaced from those of political economy – usually, essentialised inter-group binaries. They offer some of the same things radical movements do: a collective belonging, a cause, access to emotional intensities, public rituals and activities, ritualised confrontations, powerful Manichean imagery. But these means are attached to categories which reproduce the dominant system: stereotypes of out-groups, the reinforcement of pro-system hierarchies, the reproduction of emotional repression. It often seems to leftists as if fascists are taking the anger people feel towards their bosses, and telling them to direct this anger onto Jews, Muslims, or other folk-devils.
The crucial difference is that fascism is relying on power over others as its means of expression. It allows in-groups to express their superiority to out-groups through constant, highly visible performance. Sometimes this performance is direct, as with the EDL. Sometimes it is indirect, as with tabloid campaigns which influence government policy. Either way, fascism is a kind of energy-converter. It allows social status to be transformed into enjoyment. It thus provides the basis for a politics of negative patronage – where, instead of receiving material benefits, supporters simply receive status. Hence, while it produces networked power (counterposed to state hierarchies), it also reproduces alienated power.
There also seems to be an aesthetic politics of radicalism – oppression can come to seem ugly, and to be contested by aesthetic means, from graffiti to carnival. How does this differ from fascist aesthetic politics? One crucial difference is that it is participatory in a different way. Fascism is participatory in that it compels participation, but ultimately, its members are subordinate to Stirnerian spooks. Radicalism is participatory in such a way that differences feed into the construction of its spaces.
[Part Five will be published next week. Click here for other essays in this series.]
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book "Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies" (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.
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