Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Borkenau and hypocritical nihilists

“The definition of a myth is that its believers do not regard it as a myth, but as supernatural reality. There is no valid truth, these Neo-Conservatives might say, not at any rate any truth for which it would be worth while to lay down one’s life and sacrifice other lives. But without such truths life, individual and social, is bound to disintegrate. So let’s act the other way round. Let’s start being ruthless and prejudiced to excess. The faith which used to inspire ruthless[ness] and prejudice will then be given unto us.” (429)

This is Franz Borkenau, writing in 1942. The “Neo-Conservatives” he’s talking about are those “pace-makers” of Fascism, among them: Georges Sorel, Vilfredo Pareto, and Oswald Spengler. Borkenau was associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, though not really a ‘member’ of the group (at least according to Martin Jay in Dialectical Imagination). He was Viennese, but fled to London relatively early in the 1930s. He is most famously an anti-communist, and author of The Spanish Cockpit about the civil war. In 1942, then, he’s in London writing about the fascists, for Cyril Connolly’s Horizon. (Incidentally, wikipedia’s list of quotes for this English man of letters includes, "We must select the illusion which appeals to our temperament, and embrace it with passion, if we want to be happy."—which I think is, in a less world-historical tone, what Borkenau says makes a fascist. See also, for instance, Max Weber’s citation in one or the other of the vocation lectures, of Nietzsche’s last man, who has become...simply happy).

What I find remarkable is the durable utility of this definition of political evil as the unhappy conscience. There is not, I think, much deep thinking going on in Borkenau’s short essay, but it’s worth paying attention to such attempts at a ‘transcendental’ definition of fascism, which I would compare to, for instance, Badiou’s definition of a Thermidorian in Metapolitics. In more historical terms, Borkenau’s essay (which I saw cited in Shlomo Sand’s Sorel book), is an example of the fascism-is-modernity line of thought that Horkheimer and Adorno worked as well:

“Fascism started with the shame-faced whisper that, after all, all ideals are dead and that, in order to keep human affairs going, an artificial stimulus of ruthlessness must be infused into them, by however insincere means. It ends with the assertion that the complete meaningless [sic] of life is the basis of sound philosophy.” (431)

That is, it is a result of the dissolution of ideals in the face of atheistic rationalism/materialism that took place all through the 19th century. The subsequent search for new ideals is hopeless from the beginning.

“The absence of values able to prompt determined action is not limited to Fascist circles. The war has fortunately brought out the fact that, in some countries, negative values at least exist in sufficient strength, that people are still ready to die to ward off certain extreme evils. But the feeling of pointlessness of positive effort has not yet gone. I believe that it is deeply ingrained. It is the root-fact of Fascism. No easy solution, no facile watchword, will undo it. It is not only the root-fact of Fascism, it is also the root-problem of mankind at the present moment.

Yet one thing seems certain enough. In the context of the Fascist philosophy of meaninglessness even those elements of Fascism which otherwise would have meaning can only be incidents in a sanguinary tragi-comedy of self-destruction. There may be something to be learnt from our enemies. But our enemies cannot learn in. Only anti-Fascists can bring out the positive elements of our age.” (431)

Now, again, I’m pushing the parallels here, and distorting ideas on both ends, but this seems to me a clever sort of ‘hope through pure resistance to hopelessness’ argument of the sort that is not uncommon today. All inside the problematic of anti-foundationalism. No doubt there are real reasons for the accusations on the part of certain conservative cultural critics—and even from the political fringes: I have a soft spot for Lyndon LaRouche’s propaganda, if no other aspect of his organization—that various forms of radical critique tend toward the fascist. I wonder what the relationship is between this level of critique and the ‘Heidegger was a Nazi (and so was Derrida)’ type of anti-postmodernism?

Borkenau, at any rate, is an interesting fellow, a fine spokesperson for the cold-war totalitarianism school, and one I’d like to keep track of.

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