Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘anti-democracy’

Masculinity,
War, and the Cultural Politics of the Weimar Radical 
Right

The
end of the War presented the radical right with a dismaying
spectacle. Not
only was the War lost, but the hated left seemed in the ascendancy.
The SPD quickly became the party of government, pushing for the
establishment of a parliamentary republic to replace the imperial
order, and various radical movements further to the left threatened
even greater social change. The ‘magic formula’ that the
radical-right author Ernst Junger had experienced in the unity of
August 1914 was shattered. Worse, the experience of war itself, the
life of the front, was no more. The masculine unity promised by war
was disintegrating under a nauseating onslaught of threatening
forces. That this unity had
never truly existed was of little consequence. Indeed, as we shall
see, for radical
right writers like Junger, Oswald Spengler, or Arthur Moeller van den
Bruck,
it was the struggle itself that was the most important value. In the
aftermath of war, all this was under grave threat.

These
radical right fears were built on the emergent politics and mythology
of
the two fronts. This mythological system certainly had material
roots. There is no denying that the impact of scarcity, deprivation,
and social upheaval on the home front produced a certain shared
experience, while for soldiers… there was also a powerful
commonality produced by the experience of danger and death shared in
close proximity. Frontline soldiers frequently developed a strong
sense of alienation from those who did not share their experiences,
with a special disdain for those serving in the Etappe,
or rear echelons of the front, and especially for officers who never
experienced trench warfare directly. The
widespread nature of this disdain and its political heterogeneity was
evident after the War. Dirk Schumann describes how in clashes in 1921
in Eilenburg and Eisleben between members of the Stahlhelm,
the right-wing Combat League, and the KPD’s Proletarian Hundreds,
the latter would taunt the Stahlhelm
members
not only for their support of authoritarian politics, but also for
being Etappenschweine
(‘rear
echelon pigs’), and hence not ‘true’ soldiers. To
speak of the myths of the two fronts is thus not to deny these
material realities and the ways in which they produced particular
forms of consciousness. Yet these seemingly shared experiences gave
rise to a wide range of responses. For some, it led to a rejection of
war, while others celebrated its violence. These different responses
had much to do with social and political background, especially
class. As we saw with the experience of August 1914, the idea of
‘unity’ needs to be carefully interrogated.

As
Domansky suggests, the delegitimisation of state authority and the
militarisation of society opened up space for new forms of political
mobilisation that the radical right moved to fill. The radical right
played a central counter-revolutionary role, with the suppression of
the left during the post-War revolutions providing the context within
which the radical right could translate their wartime experience, in
particular that of the trenches, into peacetime. The revolutionary
upsurges of 1918–19 were contained through a variety of mechanisms,
but it was the right-wing paramilitaries, the Freikorps,
that were the cutting edge of this often-violent process. The
Freikorps
were
somewhat heterogeneous in their social composition, but were driven
by NCOs and
frontline reserve officers violently opposed to the new Republic.
They attracted a range of participants including unemployed
white-collar workers, university
students and cadets, as well as some from lower-middle-class or rural
backgrounds.

Fighters
were involved in a variety of military actions, including battles to
defend ‘lost’ German lands in the Baltics, but their most notable
action was against the left. The post-War SPD-led government, with
Gustav Noske taking the lead, called upon them in numerous instances
to suppress the revolutionary left, the Freikorps
collaborating
on these occasions to support the Republic they hated against what
they saw as the even greater danger of Bolshevism. (Muller
1925 remains one of the better accounts of the complex interplay of
forces around the suppression of the revolution. On Noske, who he
calls ‘[t]he most celebrated man of the bourgeoisie’ (p. 107), he
cites a passage praising Noske’s muscular counterrevolutionary
action from an article by Doris Wittner in the Acht
Uhr Abendblatt
:
‘the lines of his movement remind one of Meunier’s bronze men.
One grasps the psyche of this man from his body [Physis]’
(p. 107). This aestheticised masculinity suggests close links with
radical right conceptions of male embodiment. They
were not the only paramilitary formations to come into being in the
period. Home Guards (Einwohnerwehren),
for example, were militia that mobilised especially in rural areas,
but these were not as explicitly counterrevolutionary, responding
instead to broader fears of disorder and the protection of property.
If the War gave the radical right a new model for an ideal social
order, the counter-revolutionary fights of the post-War period,
especially those led by the Freikorps,
provided the mobilising centre around which they coalesced, and a
central element in the violent mythologies that sustained them
through the Weimar period. The emergence of the radical right was
certainly driven by a counter-revolutionary politics, but also by a
reaction to the gendered dynamics of the conflicts of war.

The
misogyny of the post-War radical right drew on a longer history of
antifeminism. Already before the War influential right-wing pressure
groups were a staple of political life. Some, including the League
for the Prevention of the Emancipation of Women, had anti-feminism as
their primary focus, while other larger organisations like the
Pan-German League advocated against changes in the gendered order as
part of a broader reactionary project. The former group recognised
the significance of women’s activism already at the outset of war,
writing to the government to express their worries over the
establishment of the National Women’s Service and arguing that ‘the
women’s movement is the only large organisation – even the Social
Democrats today are true
fellow
fighters – that, with a truly feminine lack of scruples, is making
use of the distress of the Fatherland to further their own goals’.

Pre-War
organisations tended to take the patriarchal social order as their
touchstone, but for the radical right that emerged during and after
the War it was a Volkskörper
modelled
on the two fronts that provided the horizon within which they
operated. Emblematic of this orientation was the emergence in the
later stages and in the aftermath of the War of an especially
pernicious myth, the legend of the ‘stab-in-the-back’
(Dolchstoßlegende).
The contention was that the army, undefeated on the field of battle
and still possessed of the will to win, had been undermined and
betrayed by traitorous forces within – inside the military itself
in the form of shirkers, pacifists, or radical soldiers and sailors,
and on the home front, with its various threats to military order.
The myth was explicitly propagated by Ludendorff and others around
the High Command. On 1 October 1918, as the cohesion of the army was
becoming an important source of concern within the military,
Ludendorff warned:

Our
own army is, unfortunately, heavily infected with the poison of
Spartacist-Socialist ideas. There is no relying on the troops
anymore… . So it is to be expected that the enemy will succeed
soon … Then our western army will lose its last self-control and,
in complete chaos, flee back across the Rhine and bring revolution to
Germany.

Ludendorff’s
outburst, often cited as an originary moment in the formation of the
legend, came at a small meeting of officers, among them Colonel Thaer
who later recorded them. …the front armies returning from the west
in fact demobilised in a much more orderly and organised fashion than
many historians have suggested (see also Bessel 1993). While this by
no means meant that they remained effective as a fighting force as
many proponents of the Dolchstoßlegende
had
it, he suggests that the sight of columns of troops marching back to
Germany in formation worked to give the impression of an undefeated
army, thus providing visual ammunition for those arguments. Notably,
recognising the links between strikes on the home front and the
conditions in
the army, Ludendorff likened soldiers’ resistance to the War to a
labour action, contending that those who remained willing to fight
‘would be greeted [by other soldiers] with the call of
“strike-breaker” and asked not to fight anymore’.

Ludendorff’s
comments highlight a number of key aspects of the Dolchstoßlegende.
It was not military defeat in the conventional sense, but loss of the
will to fight that was seen as the source of Germany’s downfall.
Ludendorff’s
view was shared lower down the chain of command in this respect as
well. The 11 November entry for the Second Battalion of the 31st
Landwehr
regiment,
for example, captures the ambivalent feelings of its writer, who
suggests that ‘[t]he report [of the armistice] was received with
joy that the bloody war is henceforth at an end, and pride that,
until the last moment, when weapons were laid down, the battalion was
undefeated’. A similar perspective informed a 16 November
communication to the V Reserve Corps that stressed the positive
impact the returning troops could have: ‘The dignified and earnest
bearing of the troops should banish the despondency of the homeland;
the farmers and middle class at home should see that an undefeated
army returns in proud and unbowed bearing’. The stress on the
middle class and farmers betrays the concerns of the writer,
presumably reflecting the desire to buttress these segments of
society against the growing working class mobilisations. This
loss of will was tied primarily to the influence of socialist ideas,
but also more generally to a loss of control configured in the
language of degeneration. In the Dolchstoßlegende
and
in the politics of the radical right these threats came from within
the military, but even more so from the civilian home front. The
first significant reference to a stab in the back came from Field
Marshall von Hindenburg in November 1918.
Along with socialists, others such as pacifists, Jews, foreign
workers, spies, protesting women, and the working class were depicted
as key sources of betrayal. In broad terms, then, and especially in
its radical right instantiations, the Dolchstoßlegende
held
a broad civilian, feminised ethos responsible for defeat. The myth
was especially potent in mobilising the Freikorps
against
these multifarious threats, but it had a wider currency. As Benjamin
Ziemann argues, it was ‘not only a political instrument wielded by
interested parties [those around the German High Command in
particular], but also and above all a means through which problems of
social order could be rendered visible, and, more generally, made
intellectually and emotionally understandable’.

The
true heroes of the myth were thus the undefeated soldiers who, in
Ludendorff’s terms, resisted the epithets of ‘strike-breaker’
and maintained their military posture. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck became
a key figure in this respect. He had been serving in German East
Africa upon the outbreak of war in 1914 and, with his mixed force of
German and East African soldiers, held out against all odds until 25
November 1918, his surrender coming only when he learned, weeks after
the fact, of the end of the war in Europe. He thus became a key
figure in the mythology of the undefeated army, with his exploits
also helping to cement the importance of colonialism in the narrative
of Weimar nationalism, a theme to which I will return in later
chapters. Lettow-Vorbeck’s book Hela
Safari!
,
published in 1920, became a best-seller. His account of the War and
his homecoming drew a direct link between the unity of August 1914
and the military as the body of the nation. Upon returning, he
recounts, ‘[h]undreds of thousands cheered us on, cheered in pure
joy despite the severe wounds that remained fresh. Pride emanated
from them that we had held the flag high until the end, and that we
had brought back unbesmirched a part of German soldierhood’.
Lettow-Vorbeck and numerous other former colonial soldiers would go
on to play key roles in the Freikorps,
their military experience with colonial counter-insurgency brought
into action against the left in Germany.

The
idea of the undefeated army was especially prevalent in the military
hierarchy and on the right, but even the new president, the SPD’s
Friedrich Ebert, parroted the claim that the army ‘is returning
home undefeated’. Boris Barth
suggests that Ebert deployed the phrase tactically (it had been
written by a military officer) without a full appreciation of its
implications. Barth stresses that it was not only the military or
political hierarchy that put forward the view of the undefeated army,
but that it was widespread, expressed even by civilians welcoming
soldiers back from the front
The SPD’s frequent endorsement of these nationalist tropes was
indicative of their position in the post-War balance of forces. In
seeking to sustain a reformist project against the revolutionary
left, the SPD hierarchy continued the conciliatory politics of the
War, acting in concert with the right against the revolutionary left.
The right in turn was also happy to conclude these tactical
alliances, but both the older established elites and the new radical
right never lost their fundamentally anti-socialist politics. The
signing of the Treaty of Versailles by the SPD-led government
strengthened this violent antipathy on their part, and made the
Dolchstoßlegende
an
absolute article of faith. The signing was widely condemned as a
capitulation that imposed a variety of punitive clauses limiting
German sovereignty and burdening the country with massive reparations
payments.

Even
though the SPD-led government had little choice but to sign the
Treaty, they were portrayed as responsible for this further stab in
the back, feeding the strategy of Ludendorff, the German high
command, and various conservative forces to shift blame onto the left
as a way of preparing the ground for counterrevolutionary action. The
left, including the SPD, had enabled what the German National Party
representative Albrecht Philipp called the ‘thousands of small
“stabs in the back” that enabled the victory of Germany’s
enemies. As Barth argues, it was in fact the military’s impossible
demands for the home front to sustain production at levels that could
match the output of the Allies that generated the hunger, protest,
and delegitimisation of the state discussed earlier, and that then
fed into the Dolchstoßlegende.
These
contradictions emerged especially in the second half of the War and
the increasingly industrial character taken on by the War after the
battle of the Somme.

The
militarised response of the radical right can be read in this context
as an attempt to embody a national will untrammelled by such material
concerns. As Klaus Theweleit has famously argued, radical right
writers performed a violently misogynist politics of militarised
control, with armoured bodies constituted through the violent
repulsion of all feminine flows. The Dolchstoßlegende
provided
the distillation of this orientation, with the feminised home front
displacing any military or economic sources of defeat. During the
War, as we have seen, but also after, this dynamic configured the
home front as an existential threat to the national body. Defence of
borders against both external and internal enemies was thus
constitutive of radical right politics. The loss of territories after
the War was crucial in this respect, often depicted as an
‘amputation’ of limbs from the Volkskörper.

The
radical right turn away from more traditional forms of conservatism
associated with patriarchal values suggests a new, more modern
orientation. Indeed, much of the academic debate over the radical
right has turned on this question of their ‘modern’ nature. One
of the more influential accounts of the radical right comes from
Jeffrey Herf, who uses the term ‘reactionary modernism’ to
describe their orientation. He argues that the radical right was an
expression of ‘a cultural paradox of German modernity, namely, the
embrace of modern technology by German thinkers who rejected
Enlightenment reason’. He develops this argument on the basis of
the Sonderweg
thesis,
suggesting that the radical right was able to gain influence because
of the relative weakness of liberalism and its attendant institutions
compared to Germany’s level of industrial development. As I argued
in the introduction, however, this approach to German history has its
limits, in Herf’s case seeing him hold onto a notion of
conservatism as ‘anti-modern’. As Thomas Rohkramer argues, the
‘reactionary modernist’ paradox is only a paradox if one accepts
the dubious contention that conservatives are naturally suspicious of
technology and
rationality.

The
equation of technology and Enlightenment rationality in Herf’s
argument ends up buttressing a liberal faith in the progressive
nature of the latter. Herf constructs his argument through a rather
caricatured reading of Adorno and Horkheimer’s thesis in the
Dialectic
of Enlightenment
,
arguing that their analysis ‘was imprisoned in the limits of
Marxist theory’ and that they ‘generalized Germany’s miseries
into dilemmas of modernity per se. Consequently they blamed the
Enlightenment for what was really a result of its [Germany’s]
weakness’. The problem with Germany, he contends, was that there
was ‘not enough’ liberalism, reason, or Enlightenment, as if
these are elements that can be measured rather than complex social
processes to be analysed. Ironically, Herf also misses the extent to
which Dialectic
of Enlightenment
marks
a break from dominant Marxist interpretations of fascism and the
development of capitalism, with that work advancing a theory of the
administered society and the primacy of politics over economics that,
depending on one’s perspective, renovated or abandoned a Marxist
analysis. Herf misses Adorno and Horkheimer’s key argument, namely
that the unfolding of Enlightenment rationality was dialectically
constituted through a repression of myth, to which it then reverts.
Trying to extract a ‘true’ rationality misses precisely the
dialectical character of Enlightenment, and capitalism, itself.
Herf’s argument therefore performs precisely the false separation
of reason from myth that Horkheimer and Adorno argue marks the march
of Enlightenment reason.

Adorno’s
study of Oswald Spengler, one of the key figures on the Weimar
radical right, highlights some of the interpretive riches missed by
Herf. Adorno goes so far as to argue that ‘Spengler is one of the
theoreticians of extreme reaction whose critique of liberalism proved
itself superior in many respects to the progressive one’. In a
comment that could be directed at Herf, Adorno contends that:

To
escape the charmed circle of Spengler’s morphology it is not enough
to defame barbarism and rely on the health of culture. Spengler could
laugh in the face of such blissful confidence. Rather, it is the
barbaric element in culture itself which must be recognized. The only
considerations that have a chance of surviving Spengler’s verdict
are those which challenge the idea of culture as well as the reality
of barbarism.

The
dynamism of Spengler’s work is ultimately sterile, mirroring
relations of domination and reverting ‘unobtrusively into a
justification of the merely existent’.

Many
of the approaches to the radical right tend to miss the extent to
which, as a movement, it was responding to the contradictions of
capitalist modernity in ways that, as Adorno suggests of Spengler,
were more profound than any
liberal progressivism. The term ‘reactionary modernism’ implies
some of these interpretive problems with its attempt to salvage
‘modernism’ for the Enlightenment project. Similarly, the term
‘conservative revolutionary’, used already in Hugo von
Hofmannsthal’s 1927 claim that what was coming in Germany was ‘no
less than a Conservative Revolution, and will be of a magnitude
previously unseen in European history’, shares a tendency to see
radical right ideology as contradictory rather than rooting those
contradictions in capitalist modernity itself. Indeed, for those on
the right it was precisely that overcoming of these contradictions
that they set as their goal. This did often involve a hybrid of older
and newer conservatisms that, as one writer put it, evoking a common
right-wing appropriation of the term socialism, was both ‘Völkisch
and
socialistic’. For Alma de l’Aigles, the conservative revolution
sought ‘to eliminate the disharmony between the eternal Idea and
its temporal distinction’.

Others
on the right dispensed with even these gestures to an older
conservatism. For Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, the author of the
1922 tract The
Third Reich
,
traditional conservatism had little to say in the modern world. Thus,
as I argue elsewhere, those on the right configured their political
programmes as a kind of radical right socialism or communism,
mobilising the language of the left in the service of a radical
national politics. This mobilisation of socialist ideas had its roots
in the War when writers from a variety of political perspectives
proposed that the Planwirtschaft,
the planned economy of the War, provided a specifically German form
of socialism against the materialism of both English capitalism and
Marxist socialism. The industrialised battlefront rather than the
pastoral countryside was the model for this new politics; the
Volkskörper
was
its bodily form.

As
Adorno suggested, one of the most articulate proponents of this view
was Oswald Spengler, whose Decline
of the West
was
published in two volumes between 1918 and 1922. While Spengler
conceived of his work in part as a manual for statecraft speaking to
the policy-making elite, the work gained a huge readership in Germany
and abroad, channelling the anxieties and desires of the period
through a powerful conceptualisation of world history. Spengler’s
overriding thesis was relatively simple: all world-historical
Cultures, each of which is a totality governed by a single organising
principle, go through a series of stages, from birth through
adolescence and on to death. There are a limited number of these
Cultures (he names the Classical [Ancient Greek], Chinese, Indian,
Magian [Jewish and Muslim], occasionally the Aztec, and finally the
West), and each of these has followed the same law-like trajectory
mirroring the human life cycle. In the initial stages each Culture
emerges and develops organically through its unique organising
principle (in the West, for example, this was what he calls the
Faustian idea of infinite space), culminating in a florescence of
cultural production. It then begins to harden, and a decline sets in.

Decay
and degeneration are thus inherent in the logic of Cultures. In the
final stage (which Spengler says is the stage in which Europe finds
itself) Culture hardens and becomes Civilisation. He finds this
descent into Civilisation in all great Cultures: ‘[t]he
Civilization is the inevitable destiny
of
the Culture’. Civilisation is the age of world-cities, science and
abstract thought, imperialism, and technology. It is the final stage,
the end and fulfillment of the history of a Culture. In one sense,
then, Spengler is expressing the common distinction often made
between a Germanic Culture (Kultur)
and a mechanistic and materialistic Civilisation (Zivilisation)
associated with England and France. Indeed, much of the right-wing
thought of the 1920s was founded on the contrasting conceptions of
the national border as a ‘blood- and body-less, primarily
mathematical abstraction’ or as a ‘three-dimensional bodily
border of flesh and blood [dreidimensionaler,
durchbluteter Grenzkörper
]’,
to use Karl Haushofer’s pungent phrasing. Spengler gives this a
twist, arguing that the dichotomy of Culture and Civilisation is
internal to cultural development, removing it somewhat from its
national(ist) context. The implication of his argument is that the
decline of the West is unavoidable, and that neither a nostalgic
desire for an organic past nor a belief in modern regeneration are
tenable positions. His anti-nostalgia was shared with others on the
radical right, although most continued to dream of a national
regeneration. In
Die
Rettung des Abendlandes
,
a radical nationalist fantasy from 1921, for example, Ernst Otto
Montanus argued against Spengler’s pessimism, claiming that Decline
of the West
threatened
to lead the Volk
into
resignation, and that it contradicted the spirit of the Frontkämpfer,
the front soldiers. As Peter Fisher argues, ‘Frontkämpfer
and
völkisch
nationalists
like Montanus (and Hitler) viewed the highbrow Spengler with
antibourgeois, anti-intellectual contempt’, despite their respect
for his authoritarian and martial ideals. Fisher also quotes Hitler’s
claim that ‘I am no follower of Spengler’s. I do not believe in
the decline of the West’.

Spengler
rejected the claim that his work entailed a fatalistic or pessimistic
orientation, arguing in 1921 in response to critics of the first
volume that ‘[m]y aim was to present an image of the world to be
lived with, rather than to devise a system for professional
philosophers to brood over’. This rejection of the contemplative
mode is where Spengler’s vision most clearly links up with others
on the radical right. For Spengler, a technologised conception of an
activist will
ran
through his work, a celebration of a metallic and totally integrated
order. Technology, he argues, is at the heart of the greatness of the
Faustian West, with the engineer having pride of place. Spengler
concludes Decline
of the West
with
a brief discussion of the conflict between the entrepreneur or manager
and the factory worker, a theme familiar to viewers of Fritz Lang’s
later film Metropolis.
As in the film, Spengler argues that the entrepreneur and the factory
worker represent the division between intellectual and manual labour
– the head and the hand in Metropolis.
A third term is needed to bind the two, but where the film offers the
humanist solution of the heart as the mediator, Spengler gives the
radical right answer: the engineer is ‘the priest of the machine .
. . the machine’s master and destiny’.

The
engineer thus embodies a resolution of the contradictions of
capitalist modernity – it is key here to remember that Spengler was
writing in the context of the post-War revolutionary struggles
between workers (hands) and bosses (mind) – but there is another
opposing principle that embodies the final stage of Civilisation:
money. It represents the final subsumption of the material, of the
earth, into the intangibility of finance, a final ‘conflict between
money
and blood’.This familiar theme of the degenerative power of liquid
money and the ephemerality of finance to destroy the soul of a
people, a perspective that often underlay anti-Semitic discourses, is
raised to an inexorable historical law. The engineer and, more
broadly, militarised technology, are bound up with blood, a kind of
modernist atavism damming the flows of money. Here we are back at the
point raised in the introduction. Marx’s characterisation of
capitalism as a system in which ‘all that is solid melts into air’
underlies Spengler’s critique of Civilisation, but this
characteristic is abstracted from social relations and is reified as
money. As we shall see in the next chapter, Spengler was not alone in
performing this sleight of hand; the sociology of Georg Simmel is
another famous example, albeit from a very different political
position. For Spengler and the radical right, though, this approach
grounded a dichotomous metaphysics of violent will.

The
belief in will that was evident in Spengler’s work was analogous to
that which fed the legend of the ‘stab-in-the-back’. Paul von
Hindenburg, the head of the army during the War and the future
president of the Republic, testified to the Constituent Assembly in
November 1919 that will
is
what set the German military apart from the numerically and
materially superior enemy. ‘At the time we still hoped that the
will
to victory
would
dominate everything else’, but that hope was dashed by
revolutionary soldiers and the weakness of the home front. The
significance of the engineer for Spengler is not simply that he can
produce more goods or, in the case of war, more weapons; if that were
the case, as Hindenburg argued, the German army was lost. Rather, the
engineer embodied a will that fulfilled the promise of a machine age.

The
dichotomy that emerges in Spengler’s work maps onto that of the
home and fighting front: ‘[w]ar
is the creator, hunger the destroyer, of all great things
.
In war life is elevated by death, often to that point of irresistible
force whose mere existence guarantees victory, but in the economic
life hunger awakens the ugly, vulgar, and wholly unmetaphysical sort
of fearfulness for one’s life under which the higher form-world of
a Culture miserably collapses and the naked struggle for existence of
the human beasts begins’. The struggle against hunger that
characterised the home front during the War is reduced here to a
vulgar bestiality threatening the greatness of war. In Decline
of the West
this
is raised to a transhistorical phenomenon, the gendered dynamic of
the two fronts subtending all cultural development and degeneration.
This struggle is thus an existential moment in which, as with the
Dolchstoßlegende,
a Culture or a nation faces extinction. Given this existential
threat, then, it is not surprising that for Spengler as for others on
the radical right, the response was a powerful and violent
reiteration of the contours of the individual and social body, the
‘form-world’, against the degenerating impacts of the merely
physical.

As
mentioned earlier, one significant corollary of the reconfiguration
of the notion of borders by the radical right was that their politics
was not inscribed solely in a national or nationalist frame. As
Marcus Bullock argues in a discussion of Ernst Junger, ‘[t]he
fronts that traversed the continent of Europe and separated nations
and alliances only marked lines of division according to the politics
of the state. According to the peculiar erotics of experience enacted
in this ancient rite of blood, the lines the opposing forces drew up
in their trenches, barbed wire entanglements, and gun emplacements,
were more like the seams that knit up the tattered patchwork of
nations and restored the singular spirit of youth and courage’.
This is a kind of radical right internationalism, ironically
emerging out of a War that so profoundly split the left over the
question of proletarian internationalism. Indeed, Ari Sammartino
argues that many of the Freikorps
fighters
in the Baltics felt a profound alienation from a Germany that, to
them, had descended into socialist chaos and had rejected them;
paramilitary fighting and ultimately settlement in the east would
provide the context for a reterritorialising of an essential
Germanness. The radical right was picking up here on a broader set of
anxieties around the threat of revolution to national borders that
was expressed even by the SPD. Thus, a Party leaflet from early 1919
warned of the threat of the revolutionary ‘terroristic minority’
who would enable ‘armies of foreign peoples to breach the eastern
borders’. The relationship between internal and external borders
was clear in their call: ‘[g]et in touch with volunteer
associations [Freiwilligenverbänden,
in this case including Freikorps
units],
which the government has assembled to secure the border and maintain
law and order within the country’.

The
ambivalence of the radical right towards the nation thus expressed
itself in a kind of nationalist internationalism. Spengler and Junger
both conceived of Germany within a broader European culture, with the
latter frequently expressing his comradeship with the worthy enemies
he faced, in particular the English. Ernst von Salomon, another key
radical right author, contended that in the War the two sides did not
represent opposing ideals, but rather that the War itself provided a
shared (Western) experience. The threat of degeneration was thus also
shared, and came from the amorphous proliferation of threats to the
Volkskörper
often
represented by the home front. This cultural nation was also then
portable, enacted in the east as well as on colonial terrain.
Lettow-Vorbeck, for example, exhorted youth to learn from his defence
of German colonies in East Africa: ‘[j]ust as the revitalisation of
energy, blood flowing through the veins, and the breathing of fresh
air are necessary for the individual if the body and spirit are to be
healthy, this is also required for our sick Volkskörper.
Labour must again flow in and out and, through our great trading
cities, must again breathe the sea air’. Here we have a colonial
social hygiene in which the biologised nation is coterminous with the
global circulation of goods and bodies.

The
primary locus of national regeneration for the radical right,
however, was found in the experience of the fighting front during the
War, and it is here that we can see most clearly the links to the
gendered dynamics of war. Ernst Junger’s work was undoubtedly the
most prominent and influential in this regard. Junger had fought at
the front as a storm trooper, had been decorated, and went on to
become one of the most significant writers of the radical right in
the Weimar period. He regained prominence after the Second World War,
writing and enjoying increasing recognition up to his death in 1998
at the age of 103. His work, in particular his war memoir Storm
of Steel
,
first published in 1920 and subsequently rewritten on several
occasions, provided the most influential radical right meditation on
the significance of war; despite the differences Junger had with the
Nazis, Goebbels called it a ‘war gospel, cruelly great’. Many of
the themes evident in Spengler’s work returned with Junger, but he
grounded them more concretely in the life of the front. By the late
1920s and early 1930s he developed this front experience into a
totalising social critique and a model of social order embodied in
the figure of ‘the Worker’. A new man emerged out of Junger’s
battlefields, the ruins of the front giving birth to a machinic
figure who Junger argued embodied a regenerated social order; by the
time he wrote The
Worker
in
the early 1930s, he conceived of this order on a planetary scale.

The
purging of a feminised degeneracy was at the heart of Junger’s
work. His novels, essays and other writings provide a sustained
critique of Weimar society and politics from the perspective of war
and the experience of the front. His disgust with the post-War order,
and with a corrupt materialist order more generally, was almost
total, and was consistently articulated through a dread of
degeneration and disease. ‘Democratic sentiments?’ he asked
rhetorically in Copse
125
,
another autobiographical novel set at the front. ‘I hate democracy
as I do the plague’. For Junger, the future could only be found in
the decidedly non-democratic iron order of the battlefield and it
could only be brought into being through an implacable war against
any threatening or degenerative heterogeneity. War was thus both
model for the utopian social order, and means for its attainment.

Junger’s
texts operated in this dual fashion as well, acting as a sort of
agitprop literature for the right. The texts themselves were
constructed as models for the desired social order, violently
regimented narratives, often in the form of diaries, which were
carefully written to exclude what he saw as effete literary
flourishes. Spengler offers a similar critique of literary
production, arguing that the journalism of the stage of Civilisation
‘substitutes for the old thoughtfulness an intellectual
male-prostitution
of
speech and writing, which fills and dominates the halls and the
market-places of the megalopolis’. Again here we see the use of the
figure of the prostitute in condemning modern civilisation, linked in
turn to the degenerative influence of the city and the market. The
true writer is thus akin to the soldier who, at the fighting front,
avoids these civilian entanglements; this argument radicalises that
of the 93 intellectuals and others who associated war with German
Culture earlier in the War.

Junger’s
depiction of the front as the alternative to the plague of democracy
was outlined more explicitly in many of his contributions to the
right-wing press in the mid-1920s. His 1925 essay ‘The Front
Soldier and Internal Politics’, for instance, is built around the
reconfigured notions of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ that I have
argued marked the politics of the radical right. Rather than national
borders, the key dichotomy here is between the ethos of the front and
that of democracy; the soldier offers the possibility for the
transcendence of these divisions through the purging of degeneracy.
Increasingly, though, Junger also looked to the figure of the Worker
to describe this new man, explicitly laying claim to the terrain of
the left. The soldier of the First World War was an industrial
soldier,
a new type of embodied subject commensurate to new forms of war.
These soldiers

have
been reared in the fiery centres of modern industry and from
childhood on know the ways and power of our era. They are more deeply
embedded in the contemporary world, whose secrets and marvels shine
through cold exteriors. They sense the elemental spirit stirring in
the explosive power of steel and the atom, in the crackling of radio
waves. This also represents a return to the more fundamental; these
men have their aeroplanes under control as an [Aboriginal] Australian
his boomerang.

Crucially,
then, while this soldier is wholly modern, he also taps into an
eternal soldierly substratum; the primitivist invocation of the
Australian Aboriginal cements this trans-historical moment.

Especially
by the later 1920s Junger stressed the roots of the soldier in the
disciplined iron order of the factory. Interestingly,
the German military establishment prior to the War had preferred
rural and small-town recruits, believing that industrial environments
produced enervated men with urban vices. With the onset of war this
shifted, with urbanites and workers seen as the ideal candidates for
the new, industrial form of warfare. Junger’s argument is thus
tightly linked with the military thinking of the period.
 The figures of the soldier and worker dominate the anti-political
politics that he developed most systematically in 1932 in The
Worker
,
embodying the social and political order that would transcend liberal
parliamentarism. The Worker represents what he calls a new ‘Gestalt’
expressed through the social totality, the ‘state of total
mobilization’. Junger’s
critique of liberalism in these works has points of connection with
those developed by the left, but for Junger the idea of totality
embodies not a revolutionary or emancipatory politics, but the
principles of violence, domination, and the hierarchy of the front
writ large. This
is a radical right version of the Volkskörper,
an embodied
totality
(Junger frequently uses the term Verkörpert
[‘embodied’])
in which the individual body of the worker or soldier merges into an
integrated social totality that transcends and transforms its
individual moments. The significance of the body is most evident at
the moment of death, especially the violent death of the battlefield
where bodily life reaches its apogee. Junger’s worker-body and
soldier-body are not material bodies, however, but represent a
transcendent moment: ‘not the slightest connection exists between
the body at the second of its death and the corpse that then
appears’. Death is the moment of fulfilment of the social order,
the point at which the bourgeois dichotomy between individual and
society is transcended and the new man discovers that it is ‘in
blood sacrifice that his most significant expression is won’. In
Storm
of Steel
he
describes being shot late in the War and thinking he is about to die:
‘[s]trangely, that moment is one of very few in my life of which I
am able to say they were utterly happy. I understood, as in a flash
of lighting, the true inner purpose and form of my life’.

The
worker state thus enables the formation of what Junger calls in
different places a new gender and a new race as the embodied forms of
the new social and political order, although he insists that this
concept of race ‘has nothing to do with the biological concept of
race’. The new state is, however, violently anti-bourgeois and
anti-liberal. Junger argues that the rise of the Worker will involve
the ‘transformation [Ablösung]
of the liberal, formal democracy [Gesellschaftsdemokratie]
through work or state democracy’. These bodily and social
transformations are highly mediated by technology, the new race
taking the form of a kind of hybrid or cyborg body that has as much
to do with engineering as biology. Junger’s work is thus clearly
about more than a ‘reactionary modernism’ that brings technology
together with anti-rational thinking; indeed, it embodies a
terrifying integrative rationality in the face of which, as Adorno
suggested of Spengler’s work, a liberal critique is wholly
inadequate. It is a particularly radical version of what Cornelius
Castoriadis has characterised as ‘the fantasy of total control, of
our will or desire for mastering all objects and all circumstances’
that is at the heart of Western technological rationality….this
phenomenon is driven especially by military practice, in particular
through the growing importance of information in warfare. This
‘totalitarian’ impulse at the heart of militarised capitalism
parallels the arguments presented here in relation to the role of
information and communication in war.

Junger’s
investments in the cyborg body are most evident in his interest in
photography. In The
Worker
he
identifies photography with broader social changes characteristic of
modern life, arguing that the medium had given rise to a new
aesthetics bound up with the abolition and transcending of older
bourgeois practices. The first photographic portraits had already
begun to ‘blur the borders between art and technology’, a shift
that changed ‘what one understands
a “good face” to be’. This ‘good face’ was precisely that
which he
sought to reflect in a series of photo-books for which he served as
editor or contributor in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These books
developed a radical right aesthetics, tracing new forms of modern
subjectivity and the front experience in which they found their ideal
home. While Junger never gave up writing novels, photography gave him
a new and in many ways more accessible medium for his agitprop
literature, a mechanical means through which the modern machinic body
could be reproduced.

For
Junger, the photographs in these lavish works were more than just
illustrations; photography itself was an integral part of the
military-technological apparatus that enabled a new consciousness. In
‘War and Photography’ (‘Krieg und Lichtbild’), his
introductory essay to the photo collection The
Face of the World War
,
Junger argued that the mass of information thrown up by technological
war requires precise forms of documentation to capture the meaning of
the militarised state. Here photography has a privileged place. Along
with artillery and guns, he says, countless lenses were trained on
the battlefield, serving as ‘instruments of a technological
consciousness’ that preserved the image of this devastated yet
generative landscape. As with his writing, Junger conceived of this
archive of images not simply as a passive recording of war, but
rather as a tool that could enable those who did not experience the
front to do so through a medium adequate to its object. The
photographic archive crystallised the new constellation of
technology, subjectivity, the body, politics, and aesthetic form.

Militarised
technology itself was not the driving force of these social changes,
however. Looking specifically at the significance of the tank in
another essay in the collection The
Face of the World War
,
Junger argues that ‘[i]t is a means of expression [Ausdrucksmittel]
of a new military epoch, just as the machine itself represents not
the beginning, but rather the expression, of a new epoch of the
spirit’. Technology is thus but the outward form of a spiritual
transformation
brewing beneath the surface.

Its
[the First World War’s] fragmentary character is based on the
technology being able to destroy the traditional forms of war. From
within itself, however, it could only intimate – without being able
to realise – a new image of war. In this process, the world war
mirrors our life – the spirit behind the technology was able to
destroy old attachments while it has not yet left the experimental
stage with respect to building a new order constituted by its own
means.

The
battlefield was thus the leading edge of transformations that were
reshaping
all areas of human life. The modern moment was the ‘moment of
danger’, as Ferdinand Bucholtz’s 1931 photobook was entitled. The
images in
Bucholtz’s book trace these moments of danger, ranging from natural
disasters to industrial accidents and car crashes. More precisely, as
we saw earlier with the Australian Aboriginal, the exponential
increase in danger made possible by the destructive potential of new
industrial processes and technologies was the modern expression of a
fundamental and primal human nature. The book links this moment of
danger directly to political struggles waged by the radical right. A
significant portion of the book celebrates counter-revolutionary
violence with writings and photographs that include: an excerpt from
Ernst von Salomon’s memoir The
Outlaws
recounting
the assassination of Walter Rathenau; photographs of the Freikorps;
and depictions of colonial violence. In the introductory essay to the
book, ‘On Danger’, Junger argued that from the bourgeois
perspective danger appears as the opposite of reason, fuelling a
desire for security. Junger, though, rejects the slogan of ‘Peace
and Order’ (Ruhe
und Ordnung
)
– which was also the counter-revolutionary slogan endorsed by the
SPD in the immediate post-War years – celebrating instead the
Gestalt of the warrior, the artist, and the criminal who tap directly
into what he calls the Elemental, the universal substratum underlying
the transient moment.

Junger’s
work is arguably both a celebration of the alienated body of
capitalist modernity, and a performance of a violent masculinity
through which that alienation can be contained. Again here the
stab-in-the-back legend, in which a series of degenerative forces
emanating from the home front undermine bodily unity, is raised to a
fundamental principle. Thus, he writes, where pacifists do their work
‘there civilization emits the first scent of decay’. Civilian
life
more broadly produced profound feelings of disgust in Junger and in
others on the radical right. Franz Sontag’s
1931 Never
Again War!?
,
a novel whose title subverts a key pacifist slogan, describes the
decommissioning of an officer: ‘[s]o he had finally become a
civilian – what a repulsive thought! … internally torn,
only half a man’. The body and subjectivity of the officer
literally embody the gendered dichotomy of the two fronts, a split
that radical right cultural production and political action sought
violently and compulsively to weld together through the extermination
of the feminine.

In
many radical right texts this fundamental misogyny was expressed
through a graphic violence against women, but in Junger’s case it
manifested as a powerful repression of any
representations
of women. His accounts of leaves from the front, for example, are
terse and include little of family or other civilian/feminine
engagements. One brief mention is telling, however. At the end of
Storm
of Steel
,
after Junger is wounded, he is rushed to a dressing-station. In the
later 1961 rewriting of the novel he merely states that ‘[t]hen I
was in the hands
of the sisters’, but in the 1924 version we get a slightly longer
account. ‘Though I am no misogynist’, he claims, ‘I was always
irritated by the presence of women every time that the fate of battle
threw me into the bed of a hospital ward. One sank, after the manly
and purposeful activities of the War, into a vague atmosphere of
warmth’. These various forces against which Junger seeks to do
battle are thus characterised as formless womanly dispersion.

It
is not surprising that nurses bear the brunt of his animosity. They
represented the only large-scale female presence at the front and, as
Klaus Theweleit details, they emerged as perhaps the most fraught and
powerful symbol of femininity in the writings of the radical right.
The position of the nurse highlights not only the complexities of the
gender politics of the radical right, but also their class politics
and their relations to older forms of conservatism. Indeed, nursing
was deeply rooted in the conservative women’s movement, offering an
opportunity for work to unmarried bourgeois and aristocratic women
that had been gained only after considerable struggle. Embodying
feminine values of care and service, as Lora Wildenthal argues in her
study of colonial
women, ‘[n]ursing offered a conservative resolution to conflicts
raised by women’s efforts at participation’. Based in modern
medical practices, nursing offered a challenging outlet for
upper-class women that, because of the non-waged, volunteer nature of
the work and the fact that it took place under male medical
supervision, simultaneously reaffirmed conservative gender roles and
values. The promotion of a ‘non-political’ caring work as women’s
ideal contribution reflected the broader opposition of many
conservative women’s groups to suffrage and other concerns of the
women’s movement. In important ways, then, nursing involved a
conservative response to changing gender relations and the rise of
liberal, radical, and socialist feminisms.

In
the pre-War period nursing developed especially in relation to German
imperial projects. Through influential Patriotic Women’s Leagues
nurses played an important role in sustaining military and settler
activity during the German colonial period, even though they were
often treated with suspicion by male settlers and colonial officials.
During the War, and in conjunction with the broader integration of
the BdF and the women’s movement in the war effort, opportunities
for nurses expanded significantly. Bourgeois and conservative women’s
organisations worked with the Red Cross to mobilise and organise
around 92,000 nurses for service in the War. The Patriotic Women’s
Leagues argued in a call on 2 August 1914 that men had stepped up to
defend crown and fatherland, and that ‘[t]he Fatherland expects the
same devotion and the same willingness to sacrifice from Germany’s
women and girls as from its sons … God grant our flag victory,
and bless our work in the service of the Red Cross!’ The Leagues
also played a key public role in mobilising support for war through
public performances of medical interventions and through large-scale
poster campaigns that became central to the propaganda efforts of the
German state. This propagandistic function in particular began to
fail over the course of the War, however, mirroring the broader
delegitimisation of the state and older elites.

Despite
their staunch nationalism and conservatism, nurses remained
ambivalent figures. They did not overtly challenge patriarchal
structures, but their participation at the front nevertheless
challenged gendered expectations. For anti-feminist critics this went
too far. Not surprisingly, opposition was frequently expressed by
sexualising women’s involvement at the front, with nurses accused
in many cases of simply wanting to find husbands or lovers. More
sensationally, the Berliner
Zeitung
ran
a story about prostitutes disguised as nurses who were arrested by
police, highlighting the unstable boundaries of the category
‘prostitute’ and its importance in formal and informal modes of
regulation of all of women’s public roles. Resistance to women’s
service at the front was strengthened by the entry of other women,
often lower-middle class in this case, into auxiliary service in
areas behind the lines. These new workers provided much fodder for
public discussion of morality; again their public role was frequently
configured in terms of the transgression of sexual norms and limits,
and at the extreme elided with prostitution.

Nurses
thus simultaneously troubled and sustained dominant gendered
practices. For the misogynist and anti-feminist radical right, any
such
feminine intrusion into male social and bodily space, especially
militarised space, represented a threat. This is evident in Junger’s
response to the hospital ward mentioned above. Death, as we saw,
offers the possibility of transcendence, but bodily wounding and his
treatment by women unmans him. As Jean Quataert argues, nurses thus
represent an older form of conservatism opposed by the radical right:
‘women’s sacrifices and the values of Christian neighborliness –
once integral to official nationalist messages – were alien to the
discourses of the new political right’. The radical right’s
response was a violent rhetorical onslaught
against unruly women that could easily turn into actual violence.
This was especially the case with the figure of the ‘red nurse’,
the communist woman who, as Theweleit argues, figured as a prominent
threat in the fantasies of the radical right, and who was visited
with sexualised violence in many of their accounts. The opposing
image of the ‘white nurse’, though, also played a role in
sustaining misogynist violence. They were to be protected by radical
right fighters, but again it was the threat of rape, this time
purportedly by communists, that underlay their place in the radical
right imaginary. In Theweleit’s view, then, while white nurses were
in need of protection, the obsession with sexual violence in these
images simultaneously ‘may then function as a means of maintaining
the threat of rape as an ever-present possibility’ for all women.

This
violently misogynist fear and loathing thus sought the elimination of
any feminine dispersion and formlessness, an orientation that can be
traced to a conception of masculine identity as struggle whose most
notable exponent was the Viennese writer Otto Weininger. His 1903
work Sex
and Character
was
extremely influential, condensing in virulent terms the broader
misogynist, homophobic, and racist (especially anti-Semitic)
perspectives characteristic of early twentieth-century ideas of
degeneration. The book is a massive interdisciplinary work that seeks
to ground human life in its social, cultural and biological bases in
fundamental gendered and racialised dichotomies. Men and women, he
argues, exist on a continuum between two ideal types, a gender
continuum that finds its racial parallel between the poles of Aryan
and Jew. Everyone falls between the poles, embodying elements of both
genders and races. Sexuality is central to his argument, with
‘excessive’ femininity in men denoting homosexuality, and
masculinity in women, lesbianism. Weininger nevertheless
simultaneously speaks of ‘women’ or ‘Jews’; while we are all
compound beings, women and Jews are tied to their biological nature,
incapable of attaining full personhood and the ideal of genius.

Weininger’s
work thus expresses a profoundly unstable conception of masculine and
Aryan subjectivity and embodiment. This true subjectivity is
undermined by femininity. Femininity is in fact not subjectivity at
all: ‘[w]oman wants man sexually, because it is only through his
sexuality that she can gain an existence’. The dynamic here
reflects a particular orientation to conceptions of degeneration
outlined in the introduction, femininity configured as a threat of
negation and formlessness, that was also evident in the logic of the
two fronts and the responses of the radical right. The genius of the
masculine and Aryan is thus paradoxical; it comes out of the
awareness of the feminine and Jewish element within. However, this
awareness takes the form of struggle. Given that women’s existence
is only enabled by men’s sexuality, men need to reject sexual
intercourse entirely: ‘what is needed is neither
the affirmation nor the denial
of
femininity, but its rejection
and
its conquest’.
That the fulfilment of this struggle would lead to the end of
humanity is of no consequence; this is the struggle that must be
waged.

Weininger’s
work was an important contribution to the anti-feminism that, as I
touched on earlier, gained significant momentum around the turn of
the century. The logic expressed in Weininger’s argument resonated
strongly with that of the radical right. As Theweleit argues,
Freudian notions of repression are inadequate to an understanding of
radical right subject formation. The radical right subject seeks not
repression, but violent struggle and expulsion, the externalisation
and obliteration of any traces of femininity. It is this struggle
that grounds the radical right male subject. The rejection of
femininity was reflected as well in popular dreams of a male
community (Männerbund)
that had a broad reach. Even more broadly, it is important to
remember, these desires were by no means the exclusive province of
the radical right, with Weininger in particular proving popular with
a wide range of people. As Raymond Williams argues, something like
this tendency existed in leftist modernist and avant-garde critiques
of bourgeois society and morality as well: ‘there is a position
within the apparent critique of the bourgeois family which is
actually a critique and rejection of all social forms of human
reproduction’, a rejection that he argues takes the form of an
extreme misogyny.

For
the radical right, this violent misogyny was bound up with the
counterrevolutionary violence exemplified by the Freikorps;
both were fights to shore up unstable and porous borders, with the
individual body mapping seamlessly onto the social body. Thus, the
Freikorps
Major
Josef Bischoff argued that the fighting in the Baltics was a ‘last
battlefront’ against Bolshevism that brought together ‘those like
myself who think of an overcoming of the revolution’. This was not
a nostalgic desire that sought to preserve a pre-existing nation,
however, but a struggle for a new order. As Joan Campbell argues, the
War gave a strong boost to ideas of efficiency, rationalisation, and
scientific management, generating in the process a strong romantic
backlash. Junger’s state of total mobilisation, however, did not
partake of such romanticism, representing instead a radicalisation of
modernist ideas, a violently masculinised fetishisation and
celebration of a rationalised social order.

The
radical right thus played a fundamental role not only in the
counterrevolution, but also in generating a cultural logic that,
while it was harnessed in some ways by the SPD, older elites, and
capital, also developed its own autonomous dynamic. It was in this
sense that the radical right described here enabled the subsequent
rise of Nazism. However, their politics remained distinct, a point
made by Ernst Bloch in differentiating those like Spengler from the
Nazis.

If
Spengler predicted the fascist period, he was still wrong to see it
starting out coldly, mechanically, from the civilized cosmopolitan
cities, in short, from a totally wakeful and late consciousness. But
with our fascists Munich, not Berlin, started it, the ‘most
organic’ capital city, not the mechanized one, and the violence
emanates from the ‘people’ (in the highly undemocratic sense),
from butcher’s dances and the crudest folklore.

This
distinction is important to keep in mind, with the two approaches
also representing different moments in the gendered class struggles
that shaped the Weimar period. The cold and elite nature of Junger
and others on the radical right emerged not only out of the
experience of war, but also out of the paramilitary
counter-revolutionary warfare of the post-War period. Theirs was not
a mass mobilisation, but the formation of a disciplined and deadly
fighting force that, through an extreme misogyny that also had
women’s struggles during the War as a target, could challenge and
defeat the revolutionary left. They were repelled in many respects by
the folklore and butcher’s dances of the Nazis, including by their
crude biological racism, but in the early Weimar years the Nazis
remained a relatively minor force. In the context of the later Weimar
years, the Nazi mass movement took on much greater prominence, a
development that forms the context for the final chapter. In turning
to the post-War revolutionary movements in the next chapter, though,
it is the radical right of the Freikorps
that
provides the background for understanding the dynamics of those early
Weimar years.

–  Robert Heynen, Degeneration and Revolution: Radical Cultural Politics and the Body in Weimar Germany. Historical Materialism series. Leiden: Brill, 2005. pp.
107-134

Pictures are, top: from Ernst Junger’s 1931 photobook about the World War; bottom: Ferdinand Bucholtz, Der gefahrliche Augenblick, 1931

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

“Democracy, as I understand it, broadly refers to participation in political power by the governed. A state is democratic to the extent that the people have a say in its operations, a workplace is democratic to the extent that workers have some control over management decisions. (Almost no workplaces are democratic.) Democracy is also often held to be what is known as “a good thing,” on the theory that people probably deserve to be part of the decision-making processes that affect important aspects of their lives. When decisions are made by unaccountable forces, without popular input, and people are subjected to the will of the state without having any control over it, this is called “authoritarianism.” It is commonly considered to be worse than democracy, and has a somewhat dubious track record.

I hope you’ll excuse the patronizing civics lecture. I wouldn’t have thought it necessary. But, there are, surprisingly enough, a number of people who do not subscribe to the belief that democracy is good. In fact, they believe we may even have too much of it already, and should probably cut back. The populace just has too much of a say in things, and must have its influence curtailed. Benjamin Wittes and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution condemn the “cult of democratization” that gives voice to the “ignorance and irrationalityof voters. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Kirchick concluded that the rise of Jeremy Corbyn is a “reminder of the perils of too much democracy,” and worries that about increasing use of the phrase “the people,” “that expression beloved of Third World tyrants and increasingly adopted by leaders in advanced industrial democracies” (also, we should note, beloved of James Madison). Bret Stephens, the New York Times’ new conservative affirmative action hire, worried about the problem of “reckless voters” being seduced by dangerous populists. A libertarian philosopher, Jason Brennan, has written an entire book called Against Democracy.

Obviously, ever since there has been democracy, there have been those who want to get rid of it. Plato saw in it the seeds of despotism, and as Noam Chomsky has often pointed out, there is a long antidemocratic tradition in American political thought. This runs from the Founders’ desire to check popular control to Walter Lippmann’s belief that “the public must be put in its place” and the “bewildered herd” ought to be kept “spectators” rather than participants, a sentiment reiterated in the Trilateral Commission’s conclusion that democracy needed moderating, because “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.” Wherever there is concentrated power and wealth, those who possess them will naturally wish to ensure a lack of interference from those who do not possess them.

But it’s somewhat extraordinary just how open some commentators are in their embrace of elitism and their disdain for the participation of ordinary people in the political process. Brennan’s Against Democracy advocates “epistocracy,” the rule of the knowledgeable, asking why a majority of the stupid “should be allowed to impose its incompetent governance” on a smart minority. Business Insider’s Josh Barro, who has proudly embraced elitism, says that “the public should be kept away from policymaking.” James Traub, in a Foreign Policy article entitled “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses,” said that “mindlessly angry” voters of left and right are undermining those who believe in “reality”: “Did I say ‘ignorant’? Yes, I did. It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them. Is that ‘elitist’? Maybe it is. Daniel Bell comes to the extreme conclusion that “the uncomfortable truth is that the best (perhaps only) way to reduce the political influence of ignorant voters is to deprive them of the vote.”

Each of these writers insists that their position is driven by empirical evidence, showing that voters are “objectively” bad at making decisions. Their preferences are incoherent (the classic “lower taxes with more government services” demand) and their knowledge of policy is, on average, negligible. There’s a lot of the well-worn Jay Leno-type “X% of voters can’t find the U.S. on a map” type material. Then there’s a lot of use of the word “populism” as a pejorative, as if anything that appeals to large numbers of people is inherently suspect.

But, and this should hardly need to be said, the fact that you don’t like something does not make it “objectively” bad. James Kirchick, for example, bases his case that there is “too much democracy” on the fact that Jeremy Corbyn did well in the British election. But he doesn’t actually make an argument for why voters shouldn’t be allowed to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. He just says that he doesn’t like Corbyn (for a series of bizarre reasons including Corbyn’s alleged enthusiasm for Argentine fascism), and therefore Corbyn shouldn’t have been one of the available options. The people have made the wrong decision, thus they shouldn’t have been allowed to decide at all. (Luke Savage has previously written about how the elite hatred of democracy often occurs when democracy seems to be tending toward left-wing policies like single-payer health care.)

Of course, this logic, if accepted, doesn’t just justify curtailing democracy slightly. It’s a call to eliminate it altogether. After all, if people are only given choices when they make the choices you want them to make, this isn’t some kind of “partial” democracy. It just leads to fraudulent plebiscites of the kind run by dictators, where you accept the vote if you agree with it and discard it if you don’t. Actual democracy means—and again, I can’t believe I have to say this—that people have the freedom to make decisions that you think are bad. “This was a bad choice” is only a case for taking away the freedom to choose if we don’t believe in the freedom to choose to begin with.

Many of the arguments against democracy depend on carefully fudging important distinctions, or attacking irrelevant positions. “Professional and specialist decision-making is essential, and those who demonize it as elitist or anti-democratic can offer no plausible alternative to it,” say Wittes and Rauch. Since nobody actually advocates that there should be no “specialist decision-making” in any part of the government, the point is misleading and irrelevant. Likewise, Lee Drutman says we must give up “on the deeply held belief that American democracy can be solved by giving citizens more opportunities to participate by emailing Congress or voting, and an end to thinking all would be better if more people would just ‘get informed on the issues.’” But this isn’t a deeply held belief at all; hardly anyone holds it. Who honestly thinks that “emailing Congress” would “solve democracy” or that “all would be better” if people were a little more informed? Nobody. Those who advance these positions are dishonestly caricaturing the democratic position, yet still arguing that “epistocrats” like themselves should be entrusted with unaccountable power. That’s one of the contradictions with the pro-“elitist” position: such people argue that they know what people want better than the people know it themselves, but they’re unwilling to actually try to fair-mindedly understand what people say they want.

This is a serious problem with the defense of elites: it assumes that there are no rational reasons why people dislike being ruled by a small political class, and that there is no legitimate critique to be made of the policy consensus adopted by that class. Yet a huge explanation for the rise of populism is precisely that people do not like the world the elites have made: a world in which they live precarious economic existences under a grossly unequal system. To believe that being angry about this is “mindless” is to assume the conclusion one is supposed to prove: being dissatisfied must be irrational, because elites must make good choices, because the choices made by elites are good by definition. Never do they wonder whether, instead of “expertise” and “merit” being the criteria by which people come to inhabit the halls of power, it might be something else (say, social class).

In their paper, Wittes and Rauch offer an extremely telling look at what leaving more things to elites would look like. Wittes and Rauch openly advocate the return of corruption and smoke-filled rooms, saying that “the curtailment of backroom horse-trading and pork-barrel spending stripped legislators of important tools to make deals and build coalitions.” They believe that voters should have less of a role in party primaries, since the current system “empower[s] disruptive and extreme outsiders at the expense of more compromise-minded party regulars.” (Democratic Party regulars, of course, have long had an extraordinary disproportionate amount of nominating power through the superdelegate system, but apparently Wittes and Rauch think even this is not exclusive enough.) They lament that, even though Donald Trump was manifestly unqualified to be president, the Electoral College could “never seriously conside[r] performing its original failsafe function” to prevent him from taking office, since this would be seen as some kind of impingement on voter sovereignty.

As an example of a government institution that functions without popular oversight, Wittes and Rauch cite the intelligence agencies. They believe that the history of the CIA and NSA, whose policies are made without any substantive input from the public, shows that many parts of government are best left to experts. Of course, they couldn’t really have chosen a worse example. The story of these two agencies is a story of everything that goes wrong when parts of the government are released from the constraints of transparency and popular oversight. As Tim Weiner documents in his history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, the agency’s track record is an appalling litany of international crime and financial mismanagement. The agency has squandered billions of dollars on projects of dubious worth, and has engaged repeatedly in illegal subversion of foreign governments, often without authorization from the president or Congress (whom they have lied to). The CIA has given arms to terrorists, tried to assassinate foreign heads of state, collaborated with Nazi war criminals, tortured people at black sites (sometimes to death), and fabricated intelligence. What’s more, precisely because oversight is left to “experts” instead of the public, there has been almost no accountability as the CIA has violated law after law (both international and domestic, including spying on American citizens in direct violation of its charter). Likewise with the NSA: Wittes and Rauch cite the NSA’s reforms after Edward Snowden’s revelations as evidence that it adapts to public opinion. But the Snowden story actually illustrates the core of the problem: because nothing the NSA does is ever subject to public scrutiny, a single individual had to take illegal action in order to bring the agency’s behavior to light. Relying on individuals to break the law is not a workable way of ensuring accountability. Wittes and Rauch think the “success” of the intelligence establishment shows that insular, invisible government works. In fact, the intelligence establishment is a case study in the failures and atrocities that result when small groups of people are christened “elites,” handed large sums of cash and total legal impunity, and allowed to go forth and do as they please.”

– Nathan J. Robinson, “Democracy: Probably A Good Thing,Current Affairs. June 27, 2017.

Read Full Post »