Today’s Political Theological Vortex – Neither A God Nor Digital Networking Can Save Us (Roger Green)

Commentary, Political Theology in History

As I sit in a coffeeshop during a brief break between summer and fall semesters, I am reflecting on the status of my university job and work in the midst of a tumultuous political world. I read regularly about tensions in academia and politics and try to do some focused catch-up reading.  In my inbox last week, a promotion from Telos Press, advertises their publication of Ernst Jünger’s post-apocalyptic 1977 novel, Eumswil, under the heading “Politics and the University.” They pull the following quotation from his book:

Incidentally, I notice that our professors, trying to show off to their students, rant and rail against the state and against law and order, while expecting that same state to punctually pay their salaries, pensions, and family allowances, so that they value at least this kind of law and order. Make a fist the with the left hand and open the right hand receptively—that is how one gets through life.

Beside the provocative nature of a quotation out of context and its conservative undertones, the ad in my inbox, in my reading of it, is directed at a status quo kind of professor who thinks that he or she is somehow outside the system and grandstands in the classroom. I am supposed to consider the anarch protagonist of Jünger’s book and the more complex nature of private intellectual spaces.

Last week I read the recently published correspondence between Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger. I had a twofold agenda.  I am interested in the strain of traditionalism informing both thinkers, and I am interested in Jünger’s thoughts on psychedelics after experimenting with them in the early 1950s, close to the same time Aldous Huxley was taking them and producing classic psychedelic texts, “Heaven and Hell,” and The Doors of Perception. I am also interested in the use of the novel by Huxley and Jünger for articulating utopic / dystopic political critiques. All of this is part of my ongoing research in the political theology surrounding psychedelics.

As it turns out, the correspondence between Jünger and Heidegger is more fruitful for tracking the traditionalist agenda than the psychedelic one, though I am convinced that traditionalism presents a specific set and setting that spreads perennialism throughout psychedelic spirituality, thus making it ultimately part of the European interiorizing of historical thinking.  This phenomenon is not limited to psychedelics and religion, scholarship such as Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West and more recently David Chidester’s Empire of Religion have located the Western Protestant and colonialist roots of the concept of religion. Thus, in Religious Studies we see the trend toward historicization and the break-up of capital “R” religion as a transhistorical concept.

On the flipside, mysticism abides. Outside of asceticism, it is also politically seductive. The conservative trend toward the perennial, toward the “end of history” overlaps with mysticism at the political level, participating in a discursive quagmire where traditional political metaphors such as the horizontal, left-right one quickly lose meaning. This is what the Jünger and Heidegger correspondence elucidates.

Both conservative intellectuals, Jünger and Heidegger lamented the new “politically correct” atmosphere of their postwar world. They discuss starting journal but Heidegger worried about the ramifications of appearing in print. He asked Jünger to quit addressing him as “professor” because his teaching privileges were revoked.

Heidegger and Jünger connected, as Heidegger says as part of their correspondences in a letter from 1949, over “the extreme danger that faces those who try today to hold on to what is essential; that to endure solitude is not an escape, but the highest freedom.” Heidegger was hesitant about participating in a journal with Jünger: “But, as I see clearly today, all this goes down the path of a relapse into the worn-out form of the journal. The joint appearance of our names, even under the simple form of a regular collaboration, would be transformed into a political event that would perhaps either shake our last secure position, or in the end confuse it.”(6)

Jünger asks Heidegger his ideas in Antaios, the journal that he and Mircea Eliade edited.(28) The letters show a blossoming friendship and a particular admiration that Jünger had for Heidegger’s skill as a philosopher. He regularly sent Heidegger accounts where Heidegger had been publicly criticized and emergent scholarly work on Heidegger. It ends with a powerful essay by Jünger, “Across the Line,” which was written for Heidegger’s sixtieth birthday and inspired Heidegger’s on the Question of Being.  Jünger, as his essay title suggests, was clearly interested in finding a line to cross. Heidegger corrects him on the notion of clearing in its relation to Dasein. Jünger’s essay, as Sean Quin notes in his introduction, is concerned with the rise of nihilism after Nietzsche, “the decline in values . . . above all the decline of Christian values,” and he locates nihilism with increasing specialization in the sciences and reductive stances in the arts.(14)

As with the hero nostalgia and longing for a decider we see in Carl Schmitt’s conservatism, Jünger and Heidegger act like old war buddies seeing a decline in national character. This fuels a cultural turn in postwar philosophy toward literary aesthetics, especially of the German Romantic variety. What is undeniable, no matter what one thinks of their politics, is their investment in an idea of culture and cultural “recovery.”  The left, on the other hand, criticized this fascination with traditionalism by emphasizing history, yet aesthetics still became the focus for them too. Herbert Marcuse argued that overcoming a repressive society required an aesthetic dimension where ontogenetic, individual forces aligned with phylogenetic, social forces. This fusion would allow for the dissemination of Eros.

In America, Marcuse’s optimism was clouded by assessments of the mass-culture industry in both his own critical theory and his ex-pat peers. While it influenced the Yippies, critical theory’s critique of humanism became conflated with liberal optimism of the humanist variety, especially in critiques of “experts” from the makers of the atomic bomb to the producers of little yellow helpers.

Historically, in America, we tend to see the dissemination of Eros in a narrow conception of the libido as sexual; thus, we think “sexual revolution.” But the concern with aesthetics and culture that occupied the European thinkers on both the left and the right in their critiques of liberal democracy were downplayed in the U.S. by a cognitive separation between aesthetics and politics.

Although recent books such as Gabriel Rockhill’s Radical History and the Politics of Art have argued that a separation between politics and aesthetics is itself a carryover of outmoded European Protestant notions of transcendence, the separation persists in books related to political theology and crises in liberal democracy. In what follows, I articulate this tension in two recent books by stimulating thinkers: Peter Sloterdijk and Paul Mason.

German philosopher and professor of aesthetics, Peter Sloterdijk, published The World Interior of Capital in 2005, but it was only translated into English in 2013. In it, Sloterdijk denies the idea that globalization is a recent phenomenon and critiques the ease with which people refer to “Eurocentricism” when the idea of a unified Europe is recent and shaky. He takes the long view of a philosopher arguing that“the true beginnings of globalization, therefore, lie in the rationalization of the world’s structure by the ancient cosmologists, who were the first to construct with conceptual, or rather morphological seriousness the totality of the existent in spherical form, and presented this edifying construct of order to the intellect for viewing.”(8)

The other thinker I will discuss is leftist English journalist and professor of Economics, Paul Mason, who published Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, in 2015. In it, Mason strikingly predicts the 2016 Brexit. It is likely for him that:“at some point, one or more countries will quit globalization, via protectionism, debt write-offs and currency manipulation. Or that a de-globalization crisis originating in diplomatic and military conflicts spills over into the world economy and produces the same results.”(29)

The tension between these two thinkers ought to be clear: Sloterdijk sees globalization as occurring of two millennia and aligns it with the goddess, Fortuna.  Mason presents thinking that believes it can “opt out” of globalization. According to Sloterdijk, opting out of globalization would be pure fantasy, but tied to conservatism and traditionalism, it is relatively easy to see how “make X country great again” rhetoric works to appeal to working class people who can remember times when their labor was worth more and their pensions were more secure.

The larger thrust of Sloterdijk’s argument has to do with the internalization of the globe as a sphere. As history moves, the birth of capital is part of “the monogeistic faith of the Modern Age”(10) that compresses “previously separate worlds into one global context.”(14) He links universalist tendencies of colonialism with growing density of collapsing spheres, which produces disinhibiting tendencies associated with liberalism. This kind of thinking is in line with the tradition of critical theory, especially of the Herbert Marcuse and Hannah Arendt varieties, although neither thinker makes an appearance in Sloterdijk’s book.

He then genealogically links capitalism and proto-liberals like Adam Smith with monotheistic views in which “everything superfluous could only be displeasing to God and nature.”(228) He argues that the same universalist disinhibiting that produced the terrorism of colonialism and American exceptionality from history is mimicked by contemporary terrorists while America tries to reassert itself as an historical power.(238)  The problem in current discourses of globalization as Sloterdijk describes them is “in relating the local and the global to each other in the same way as the point in a field.”(255) The monogeistic sphere internalized as “the West” produces a certain kind of dwelling, creating a concept of the local “that makes abstract progressives blush.”

Sloterdijk notes that the discourse on globalization comes from asymmetrically affluent voices. He emphasizes the necessity of a sophisticated notion of ‘the local’ that can admit to the reliance of a “successfully lived life, which does not become what it can without being immune, self-preferential, exclusive, selective, asymmetrical, protectionist, uncompressible and irreversible.”(263) He argues that the traditionally leftist values opposing this list can only be realized from time to time.

Sloterdijk qualifies his statement significantly: “This catalogue may sound like the summary of a far right party manifesto; in reality, however, it lists the characteristics that inhere in the infrastructure of becoming in real human spheres.” I now want to contrast Sloterdijk’s at times rightist seeming statements with the English leftist economist Paul Mason.

In Postcapitalism, Mason sees the demise of capitalism in the move away from the gold standard, creating a “global currency system [that] was based on fiat money.” Fiat money is the creation of paper money to fill an economic dip with nothing to back it up. Along with this, Mason adds financialization (over-extending credit), world imbalance, and the info-tech revolution as signifying why neoliberalism is broken. According to Mason, neoliberalism was so successful at exploiting the workforce and creating unmanageable debt that labor can no longer feed back into the capitalist system.  Neoliberalism thus defeats itself by being successful at destroying collectivity.

Mason’s argument goes as follows: Capitalism is an organism with a beginning, middle, and end. Seeing it as an organism contradicts the conventional notion that capitalism is “infinite.” Capitalism only seems infinite because it is adaptive. Capitalism traditionally adapted by colonizing or appropriating what is beyond it, but it has lost its ability to adapt. We are in a stalled transition to another kind of capitalism – information capitalism.

In fact, for Mason, more likely than being stalled transition to a later stage of capitalism, we are actually moving toward what he calls postcapitalism. He evidences this by noting that the share of labor in the global market has fallen.  Financialization then demands more financial profits but because wages don’t rise you get a continuous global boom and bust which the State then has to pay for, exhausting its ability to support the people affected by the bust. Mason argues that it used to be the case that the collectivity of labor forced the capitalist elite to innovate but since the labor-force has been defeated by neoliberalism, the cycle of capitalism cannot innovate. He sees the essence of the roots of the new change toward postcapitalism in information technology.

While he is not technological determinist, Mason identifies three important features that information technology brings.

*Information technology delinks work from wages.

 

*Information goods are different in that the cost of reproduction is so much smaller than production (think the cost of reproducing mp3s). Under capitalism, intellectual property produces the under-utilization of information, but we are witnessing the inability to control intellectual property. Thus, the “zero price revolution” of information technology is trickling down into the free market.

 

*Because information is social, upgrades in one location affect everywhere. New forms of economic activity are taking place in the “real” sharing economy, not Uber and Airbnb, but timebanks, foodbanks, car-shares, and co-operative kindergarten, as he argues in an conversation with the British publication The Guardian.

In Mason’s view, the becoming world is not about banks and commerce and non-abundance of information but about sharing and community. Here his argument seems to touch back on Sloterdijk’s idea of the local in the sense of community. Toward the end of Postcapitalism, Mason argues, following Herbert Simon, that if Martians were to come to earth and take stock of human economy, they would overwhelmingly see organizations outnumbering markets.(263) Sociality wins out.

In the Q & A portion of a live book talk with The Guardian, a concerned audience member asked him where the individual is in his analysis, and he replied that it is the educated, networked individual. Again here, I see some crossover with Sloterdijk’s emphasis on locality in order to produce the idea of an outside. But in this emergence I also see the political vortex between left and right blurring what appear to be different notions of the individual and community.

I want to connect this now to Ernst Jünger’s some of statements in his essay, “Across the Line.” In his correspondence with Heidegger Jünger notes that the charge of nihilism comes from all sides and that each charge is justifiable, so we ought not fight over who are the culprits. He says, “Here everyone stands, regardless of conditions and rank, in direct and sovereign struggle, changing the world with their victory. If one prevails here, Nothing will recede. It will deposit treasures from the flood along the shore. They will compensate for the sacrifice.”(101)

So heroic is this statement that it needs a Luck Dragon to fly on. Nevertheless, the traditionalist impulse persists in conservative emphases on individualism. Networked individualism appears as a solution to this dilemma, yet Joel Kotkin among others argues that the new “robber barons” of current digital technology are far more exploitative than their nineteenth century forbears.  He writes: “much of the problem, notes MIT Technology Review editor David Rotman, is that most information investment no longer serves primarily the basic industries that still drive most of the economy, providing a wide array of jobs for middle- and working-class Americans.”

Does this make Mason an educated elitist leftist? Or is it the rightist conservatives whose individualism is too magnificently deep to be conveyed to the wider public more elitist? Like Jünger’s assessment of the accusation of nihilism, accusations about elitism work similarly. Sloterdijk’s call for the necessity of locality, of positioning and “immunity,” even among leftists is a powerful one for those of us who willy-nilly occupy the world interior of capital that is “the West.”

The political theological vortex that gives more dimensionality than a flat, horizontal, left-right, political spectrum needs more emphasis. In doing so, however, we must understand the historical place that verticality has played in transcendent concepts of the divine and the State. While I personally agree with Paul Mason’s sentiment and much of his argument, we need more than networked individuals to save us, and that more also needs to be more than Heidegger’s famous phrase, which he uttered during a 1966 interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel, “only a god can save us.” On the other hand, cooperating through networks might help alleviate the problem that there is no one thinker great enough to assess our condition and no one politician who can solve our problems.

Roger Green is a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature.  He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.

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