For the past two weeks I have made my annual pilgrimage with university students to Vienna, which because of the strong United Nations presence and the hundreds of NGOs specializing in international humanitarian services and outreach is often known as the “gateway city” for globalization.
Our course has a kind of slam-bam-thank-you-mam one-week emphasis on human suffering and the selfless efforts, especially of different faith-based and interfaith organizations headquartered here, to alleviate it. We always end the course with a two-hour train ride west of the city along the Danube to the Denkstätte (“memorial”) that is the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, an originally preserved site of the monstrous brutality and anti-human obscenities inflicted on a vast diversity of different peoples now at least 70 years ago by the Third Reich.
The long, arduous trek we take up the mountain from the train station to the memorial facilities in order to re-enact the forced march of the 100,000 or more prisoners who went that way over an eight-year period – often in the harsh cold, swirling snow, or clinging mists of mid-December – prepares the students for an eventual and often breath-robbing encounter with the mysterium horrendum when they enter the stone-walled confines of the abandoned camp.
The incredibly beautiful natural surroundings along with the unbearable silence of the Denkstätte adds to confused and simultaneous feelings of terror, sadness, outrage, and an almost cosmic puzzlement about the significance of it all.
In the basement of the concentration camp next to the preserved gas chamber is a gallery of photographs and sad, reconstructed accounts of inmates of the camp. The exhibit offers a poignant and quasi-immersive experience of what it might have been like up until American troops liberated the place on May 5, 1945.
But something caught my eye this time. It was a thread that seemed to run through many of the narratives about how the SS had so efficiently and “rationally” typologized and categorized people according to their “ethnic” and “racial” identities. Furthermore, it implied that the SS had successfully “administrated” the labor system and the grotesque psychology of what at the end became just another death camp by playing on the shame, self-hatred, and mutual hostilities of people who had no longer come to see themselves as individuals but as pathetic creatures reduced to what Giorgio Agamben has called in his book Homo Sacer the condition of “bare life.”
In the nearby bookstore I later picked up a book in German by Wolfgang Sofsky entitled Die Ordnung des Terrors (“The Order of Terror”, Fischer, 2008). The book consists of a kind of structuralist sociology of the Nazi death camps and how they functioned, an analysis of their pitiless “biopolitics”, as Foucault might say.
According to Sofsky, the camps were built on the rule of “absolute power”, which was rigidly and violently organized around the principles of detailed “classification” and “substitution.” In this lethal, but highly effective grid of totalized power relationships “the victim is transformed into an accomplice [of the system], thereby erasing the boundary between personnel and prisoners.”
Sofsky goes on to show how a kind of penal rationality and discourse developed in the camps that was constantly shifting and rebalancing the meaning of the difference between what nowadays we would commonly call “oppressor” and “oppressed.”
Three quarters of a century later we have the stock and almost cartoon image in our head of the vicious and heartless SS operative who shot Jews for no reason on sight. But Sofsky suggests to us that the seemingly “arbitrary” savagery of the concentration camp was intentionally as well as efficiently designed, both administratively and psychologically, to hide from all participants the irrationality of the system as a whole.
In other words, a ruthless terror system without any truly intelligible or calculable rules and procedures was put in place in order to create the illusion of hierarchy and order, along with a distribution of rewards and entitlements, when in the fact the aim was to dehumanize and to annihilate any palpable sense of justice or purposefulness.
The dominant narrative today is that the Third Reich was simply a metastatizing “imperialist” system built driven by an overweening and exceptionalist logic of “Aryan” privilege and destiny, combined with the wildest and most sadistic form of racism that magnified inherent European attitudes going back to at least the eighteenth century. But the sociology of the death camps do not so easily comport with this familiar paradigm.
Although those unfortunates selected for the camps were for the most part were indeed singled out because of a political ideology pretending to be to be “scientific” and thematizing the most subtle differences (or pseudo-differences) among groups and sub-groups of the world’s peoples as well as different lifestyles, within the camps themselves such a presumed aristocracy based on the privileging of “races” and “types” dissolved into an unpredictable and always volatilized pandemonium of mutual hostilities, arbitrary aggressions, dog-eat-dog competition for an illusory means of subsistence, recriminations, and the overwhelming threat of instant and inhumane annihilation.
Even the much vaunted depravity of the prison guards and SS overseers can be explained in this manner. Often the behavior of certain more collaborative, or “enterprising”, inmates was in no way morally superior to those who technically ran the system. The point was to create “absolute power” through absolute dehumanization, or in today’s language might we say “post-humanization”?
The never quite realized dystopia of the Third Reich, particularly as many documents indicate Hitler himself envisaged, would have been one in which a system of absolute, impersonal power orchestrated through terror and feeding off of every imaginable form of rage, grievance, and fantasies of victimhood, righteousness, or revenge would contribute to the “social dynamics” of such a dark, dysfunctional future.
I offer this grim meditation, even in the midst of Advent, because it calls attention to something in today’s world which seems to be leaning in toward this “posthuman” future, W.B. Yeats’ “rough beast” that “slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.” Ever since this particular season of advent began I have watched a slow, upsurge of daily news accounts indicating a world slowly sinking into a state that reminds us of those now well-known twentieth century “dark ages.”
We can start with the ongoing protests and demonstrations in America over the two latest high-profile grand jury decisions in St. Louis and New York which, combined with now familiar street images of highly militarized police, foster a feeling of a renovated campaign of racial repression and social indifference to the marginalization of “black lives”. The reality may be far more complex than the emergent narratives, but ultimately it is this new lowering “hyperreality” (six years after the inauguration of the so-called “post-racial president”) that has permeated the public imagination, regardless of the facts on the ground.
Meanwhile, all across Europe the simmering political anger of Muslims against the state of Israel ignited by the Gaza War last summer, the faltering economic outlook, and the ever mounting flood of refugees from the thoroughly discombobulated political conditions in the Middle East have contributed to what the German-speaking peoples would call an unheimlich (“deeply disturbing, threatening in a vague, non-specific way”) mood of an all-too-familiar historical hammer that might any day just drop.
One hundred years exactly after the onset of the Great War that contemporaries routinely referred to as “Armageddon” certain attitudes seem to be back in vogue, even if the objective economic and social conditions are now entirely different.
The new, surly Zeitgeist has been marked by dramatic increases in recent months in the popularity across the board of far-right, immigrant-baiting political parties who, along with the complicity of many ideologically robotic left-wing intellectuals who can’t distinguish in their Facebook-sodden armchair stupor and romanticized brains between Guevarist guerrillas of old and the patently fascist Hamas, have fed the sudden rise of “anti-Semitism.”
As Elisa Massimino warns, anti-Semitism (regardless of the foreign policy of Israel) is historically and ineluctably the caged canary in the mine when it comes to the appearance of dangerous, totalitarian impulses. Massimino writes:
Ostensibly opposed to the far right, mainstream politicians have embraced some of their policies and played to the prejudices fueling them…European governments are kidding themselves if they believe they can be complacent about anti-Semitism and its purveyors without weakening their democracies and the social fabric of their countries.
The strange disease of anti-Semitism, extensively written about and anatomized by scholars since World War II, was first diagnosed succinctly by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their classic work Dialectic of Enlightenment, published during the heights of the Nazi barbarities in the early 1940s. The two main founders of what has come to be called “critical theory” saw Nazism, and its full social-psychological incarnation in the concentration camps, not as an aberration of the modern but as the fulfillment of its contradictory tendencies.
On the one hand, the “dialectic” of Enlightenment offered the promise of a worldly intellectual as well as political emancipation that was founded, as Immanuel Kant’s towering works attest, on the “transcendental” and powerfully generative reality of freedom, a freedom which was immanently “moral” and which much of the Enlightenment identified with the very depths of “conscience” (Gewissen).
On the other side of the Atlantic James Madison shared a similar conviction of the possibilities of such an “immanent” form of faith when he pushed for the guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, which became enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
On the other hand, the dialectic also became, according to the founders of the Frankfurt School, the drive train of a new “instrumental rationality” enshrined in the triumph of empirical science and the industrial revolution, which has been used ever since to manipulate the minds of the masses and stoke an insatiable and spiritually vacant consumerism captured in the sentiment of the Rolling Stones’ famous song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
This ever restless production of omnivorous consumer wishes and strivings has brought forth the paradox of the modern—and also “postmodern”—self that is at once ever refined by what Harvard economist and marketing guru Theodore Levitt regarded as the imperative to constant “differentiation” of a product and at the same time ever desiring to lose itself in some totalized fantasy of all-encompassing revolution, apocalypse, or final oblivion.
For Levitt, what drives “late capitalism” is not greed, but the powerful motivation to fabricate ever increasingly nuanced identities consisting of nothing more than pure signs of difference (the “newest”, “latest”, “improved” whatever when it comes to material goods, or the “I ♥︎… am proud to be” whatever it is in relation to bio-ethno-cultural self-designations and their attendant popular self-representations). Horkheimer and Adorno, furthermore, note that this process of consumer-driven identity differentiation is the essence of social management.
In his prolific writings on the Enlightenment and its rage to classify, typologize, and make rarefied distinctions as the ideological fountainhead of colonialism Walter Mignolo (See, for example, his The Darker Side of Western Modernity, Duke University Press, 2011) has shown us how these Enlightenment-based and putatively “scientific” systems of discursive regulation succeed in maintaining structures of unassailable social dominance, simply because they constantly energize what I would term a “rage against the Other,” whomever—or whatever—that “not me” might be.
If my “I” becomes ever more sacral in its unique space of differentiated victimhood or romantic destiny, then both my Angst and my anger become justifiable sources of psychological enmity and political action against my equally overdetermined alter.
In the biopolitical gridlock of multiculturally differentiated crypto-individualities and pseudo-collectivities maintained by the alluring myth of some global system of vague, but indiscriminate repression identified variously as “capitalism”, “socialism”, “liberalism”, “racism”, “secularism”, “humanism”, “patriarchy”, “cosmopolitanism”, or even the currently fashionable “neo-liberalism,” all forms of moral and political outrage are equally calibrated with each other, and all forms of moral and political irrelevance are equally tabulated together.
And the real global landscape, as I experienced at Mauthausen, are beautiful and colorful (“rainbow”) surroundings that avert one’s gaze from the sordid subhumanity that unfolds within the merciless stone walls of the concentration camp.