What space architecture says about us

With the recent expedition of Nasa’s Perseverence rover to Mars, I’ve taken an interest in space architecture; more specifically, habitats for people on the moon or the Red Planet. The subject first grabbed my attention earlier this year, when I saw that a centuries-old forestry company in Japan is developing wooden structures for future space colonies. Space architecture is not as other-worldly as you might think. In various ways, it holds a revealing mirror to life here on Earth. 

Designing human habitats for Mars is more than just a technical challenge (though protecting against intense radiation and minus 100C temperatures is, of course, a technical challenge). It’s also an exercise in anthropology. To ask what a group of scientists or pioneers will need from their Martian habitats is to ask what human beings need to be healthy, happy and productive. And we aren’t just talking about the material basics here. 

As Jonathan Morrison reported in the Times last weekend, Nasa is taking inspiration from the latest polar research bases. According to architects like Hugh Broughton, researchers working in these extreme environments need creature comforts. The fundamental problem, says Broughton, is “how architecture can respond to the human condition.” The extreme architect has to consider “how you deal with isolation, how you create a sense of community… how you support people in the darkness.”

I found these words disturbingly relatable; not just in light of the pandemic, which has forced us all into a kind of polar isolation, but in light of the wider problem of anomie in modern societies. Broughton’s questions are the same ones we tend to ask as we observe stubbornly high rates of depression, loneliness, self-medication, and so on. Are we all now living in an extreme environment?

Many architects in the modernist period dreamed that they could tackle such issues through the design of the built environment. But the problem of what people need in order to flourish confronted them in a much harder form. Given the complexity of modern societies, trying to facilitate a vision of human flourishing through architecture started to look a lot like forcing society into a particular mould.

The “master households” designed by Walter Gropius in the 1920s and 30s illustrates the dilemma. Gropius insisted his blueprints, which reduced private family space in favour of communal living, reflected the emerging socialist character of modern individuals. At the same time, he implied that this transformation in lifestyle needed the architect as its midwife. 

Today architecture has largely abandoned the dream of a society engineered by experts and visionaries. But heterotopias like research stations and space colonies still offer something of a paradise for the philosophical architect. By contrast to the messy complexity of society at large, these small communities have a very specific shared purpose. They offer clearly defined parameters for architects to address the problem of what human beings need. 

Sometimes the solutions to this profound question, however, are almost comically mundane. Morrison’s Times report mentions some features of recent polar bases:

At the Scott Base, due to be completed in 2027, up to 100 residents might while away the hours in a cafeteria and even a Kiwi-themed pub, while Halley VI… boasts a gym, library, large canteen, bar and mini cinema.

If this turns out to be the model, then a future Mars colony will be a lot like a cruise ship. This doesn’t reflect a lack of imagination on the architects’ part though. It points to the fact that people don’t just want sociability, stimulation and exercise as such – they want familiar forms of these things. So a big part of designing habitats for space pioneers will involve replicating institutions from their original, earthbound cultures. In this sense, Martian colonies won’t be a fresh start for humanity any more than the colonisation of the Americas was. 

Finally, it’s worth saying something about the politics of space habitats. It seems inevitable that whichever regime sends people to other planets will use the project as a means of legitimation: the government(s) and corporations involved will want us to be awed by their achievement. And this will be done by turning the project into a media spectacle. 

The recent Perseverance expedition has already shown this potential: social media users were thrilled to hear audio of Martian winds, and to see a Martian horizon with Earth sparkling in the distance (the image, alas, turned out to be a fake). The first researchers or colonists on Mars will likely be reality TV stars, their everyday lives an on-going source of fascination for viewers back home. 

The lunar base in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

This means space habitats won’t just be designed for the pioneers living in them, but also for remote visual consumption on Earth. The aesthetics of these structures will not, therefore, be particularly novel. Thanks to Hollywood, we already have established ideas of what space exploration should look like, and space architecture will try to satisfy these expectations. Beyond that, it will simply try to project a more futuristic version of the good life as we know it through pop culture: comfort, luxury and elegance. 

We already see this, I think, in the Mars habitat designed by Xavier De Kestelier of Hassel Studio, which features sweeping open-plan spaces with timber flooring, glass walls and minimalist furniture. It resembles a luxury spa more than a rugged outpost of civilisation. But this was already anticipated, with characteristic flair, by Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Kubrick’s imagined lunar base, there is a Hilton hotel hosting the stylish denizens of corporate America. The task of space architects will be to design this kind of enchanting fantasy, no less than to meet the needs of our first Martian settlers.  

The double nightmare of the cat-lawyer

Analysing internet memes tends to be self-defeating: mostly their magic comes from a fleeting, blasé irony which makes you look like a fool if you try to pin it down. But sometimes a gem comes along that’s too good to let pass. Besides, the internet’s endless stream of found objects, jokes and observations are ultimately a kind of glorious collective artwork, somewhere between Dada collage and an epic poem composed by a lunatic. And like all artworks, this one has themes and motifs worth exploring.

Which brings me to cat-lawyer. The clip of the Texas attorney who, thanks to a visual filter, manages to take the form of a fluffy kitten in a Zoom court hearing, has gone superviral. The hapless attorney, Rod Ponton, claims he’s been contacted by news outlets around the world. “I always wanted to be famous for being a great lawyer,” he reflected, “now I’m famous for appearing in court as a cat.”

The video clearly recalls the similarly sensational case of Robert Kelly, the Korea expert whose study was invaded by his two young children during a live interview with the BBC. What makes both clips so funny is the pretence of public formality – already under strain in the video-call format, since people are really just smartly dressed in their homes – being punctured by the frivolity of childhood. Ridiculously, the victims try to maintain a sense of decorum. The punctilious Kelly ignores his rampaging infants and mumbles an apology; the beleaguered Ponton, his saucer-like kitten’s eyes shifting nervously, insists he’s happy to continue the hearing (“I’m not a cat” he reassures the judge, a strong note of desperation in his voice).

These incidents don’t become so famous just because they’re funny, though. Like a lot of comedy, they offer a light-hearted, morally acceptable outlet for impulses that often appear in much darker forms. We are essentially relishing the humiliation of Ponton and Kelly, much as the roaming mobs of “cancel culture” relish the humiliation of their targets, but we expect the victims to recognise their own embarrassment as a public good. The thin line between such jovial mockery and the more malign search for scapegoats is suggested by the fact that people have actually tried to discredit both men. Kelly was criticised for how he handled his daughter during his ordeal, while journalists have dredged up old harassment allegations against Ponton.

But there are other reasons why, in the great collective fiction of internet life, cat-lawyer is an interesting character. As I’ve previously written at greater length, online culture carries a strong strain of the grotesque. The strange act of projecting the self into digital space, both liberating and anxiety-inducing, has spurred forms of expression that blur the boundaries of the human and of social identity. In this way, internet culture joins a long artistic tradition where surreal, monstrous or bizarre beings give voice to repressed aspects of the human imagination. Human/animal transformations like the cat-lawyer have always been a part of this motif.

Of course it’s probably safe to assume that Ponton’s children, and not Ponton himself, normally use the kitten filter. But childhood and adolescence are where we see the implications of the grotesque most clearly. Bodily transformation and animal characters are a staple of adolescent fiction, because teenagers tend to interpret them in light of their growing awareness of social boundaries, and of their own subjectivity. Incidentally, I remember having this response to a particularly cheesy series of pulp novels for teens called Animorphs. But the same ideas are being explored, whether playfully or disturbingly, in gothic classics like Frankenstein and the tales of E.T.A Hoffman, in the films of David Lynch, or indeed in the way people use filters and face-changing apps on social media. 

The cat-lawyer pushes these buttons too: his wonderful, mesmerising weirdness is a familiar expression of the grotesque. And this gels perfectly with the comedy of interrupted formality and humiliation. The guilty expression on his face makes it feels like he has, by appearing as a cat, accidentally exposed some embarrassing private fetish in the workplace. 

Perhaps the precedent this echoes most clearly is Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” where the longsuffering salesman Gregor Samsa finds he has turned into an insect. Recall that Samsa’a family resents his transformation not just because he is ghastly, but because his ghastliness makes him useless in a world which demands respectability and professionalism. It is darkly absurd, but unsettling too: it awakens anxieties about the aspects of ourselves that we conceal from public view. 

The cat-lawyer’s ordeal is a similar kind of double nightmare: a surreal incident of transformation, an anxiety dream about being publicly exposed. Part of its appeal is that it lets us appreciate these strange resonances by cloaking them in humour. 

Gambling on technocrats

The likely appointment of Mario Draghi as Italy’s prime minister has been widely, if nervously, greeted as a necessary step. Draghi, an esteemed economist and central banker, will be the fourth unelected technocrat to fill the post in Italy in the last 30 years. As the Guardian concedes by way of welcoming Draghi’s appointment, a ready embrace of unelected leaders is “not a good look for any self-respecting democracy.” 

Italy’s resort to temporary “technical governments” reflects the fact that its fractious political system, with its multitude of parties and short-lived coalitions, is vulnerable to paralysis at moments of crisis. Such has been the price for a constitution designed to prevent the rise of another Mussolini. Ironically though, the convention of installing technocrats recalls the constitutional role of Dictator in the ancient Roman Republic: a trusted leader who, by consensus among the political class, takes charge for a limited term during emergencies.

During the 1990s, it was the crisis of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the vast Mani pulite corruption scandal, and Silvio Berlusconi’s first chaotic administration which formed the backdrop for the technocratic governments of Carlo Ciampi and Lamberto Dini. Now in the midst of a pandemic and a gathering economic storm, the immediate pretext comes from the collapse of a government led by Giuseppe Conte of the Five Star Movement, amid machinations by Conte’s rivals and accusations of EU emergency funds being deployed for political patronage

Yet despite its distinctively Italian flavour, this tradition of the technocratic dictator has a much wider European resonance. It reflects the economic and political strains of European integration. And ultimately, the Italian case merely offers a pronounced example of the precarious interplay between depoliticised technocratic governance and democracy which haunts the European Union at large.

The agendas of the Ciampi and Dini cabinets included politically sensitive reforms to state benefits and the public sector, with the purpose of rendering Italy fit for a European economy where Germany set the tune. This pattern was repeated much more emphatically when the next technocratic prime minister, the economist Mario Monti, served from 2011-13. Monti’s mission on behalf of Berlin and Brussels was to temper Italy’s sovereign debt crisis by overseeing harsh austerity measures. 

The legacy of that strategy was the rise of the Italian populism in the form of the Five Star Movement and, on the right, Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord. Which brings us to another crucial piece of background for Draghi’s appointment this week. With Italian Euroscepticism making further advances during the disastrous first phase of the pandemic, it seems likely that were an election called now a rightwing coalition led by Salvini would take power.

For Italy’s financial and administrative class, that prospect is especially scary given how much the country’s stability now depends on support from the EU. It can be hoped that Draghi will calm the nerves of Italy’s northern creditors, and Germany especially, to pave the way for a much needed second instalment of the coronavirus relief fund. But while all the talk now is of spending and investment, Italy has a public debt worth 160% of GDP and rising, which is only sustainable thanks to the European Central Bank (ECB) continuing to buy its government bonds. It is surely a matter of time before further “structural reforms” are demanded of Italy. 

In other words, when the political parties aren’t up to it, technical governments do the dirty work of squeezing the Italy into the ever-tightening corset of the EU’s economic model. So this is not simply a pathology of Italian politics, but nor can it be characterised as an imposition. Figures like Monti and Draghi have long been invested in this arrangement: they cut their teeth during the 1990s hammering Italian finances into shape for entry to the Euro, and subsequently held important posts in EU institutions. 

Indeed, the basic logic at work here, whereby tasks considered too difficult for democratic politics are handed over to the realm of technocratic expertise, has become a deeply European one. We see it most clearly in the EU’s increasing reliance on the monetary instruments of the ECB as the only acceptable tool with which to respond to economic crises. This goes back to the original political failure of not achieving fiscal integration in the Eurozone, which would have allowed wealth transfers to ailing economies no longer able to negotiate debt reductions or devalue their currencies. But during the Eurozone crisis and its aftermath, politicians avoided confronting their electorates with the need to provide funds for the stricken Club Med states. In stead they relied on the ECB to keep national governments solvent through sovereign bond purchases.

And lest we forget, it was these same bond purchases that made the name of Italy’s incoming prime minister, Mario Draghi. In 2012, when Draghi was ECB president, he appeared to almost magically calm the debt markets by announcing he would do “whatever it takes” to keep the Eurozone afloat. This statement, revealing that Draghi had been empowered to step outside the bounds of rule and precedent, is again suggestive of a kind of constitutionally-mandated technocratic dictator, but at a Europe-wide level. 

Of course to focus on monetary policy is also to highlight that these tensions between technocracy and democracy go far beyond the EU. It is certainly not just in Europe that central bankers have accrued vast power through their ability to provide back-door stimulus and keep huge debt burdens sustainable. The growing importance of central banks points back to an earlier moment of depoliticisation at the dawn of neoliberalism in the early 1980s, when control of interest rates was removed from the realm of democratic politics. More fundamentally, it points to the limitations imposed on democracy by the power of financial markets. 

Still, it is no accident that this tension has appeared in such acute form in the EU. As with Italy’s ready supply of emergency prime ministers, the EU’s dense canopy of technocratic institutions provides an irresistible way for politicians to pass the buck on issues they would otherwise have to subject to democratic conflict. This is all well and good if the technocrats succeed, but as we have seen recently with the EU’s vaccine program, it also raises the stakes of failure. Handing difficult and sensitive matters over to unaccountable administrators means that blame and resentment will be directed against the system as whole. 

Why accusations of vaccine nationalism miss the mark

This article was first published by The Critic magazine on 2nd February 2021.

n the wake of Friday’s decision by the European Union to introduce controls on vaccine exports, there has once again been much alarm about “vaccine nationalism.”  This term is meant to pour scorn on governments that prioritise their own citizens’ access to vaccines over that of other countries. It points to the danger that richer parts of the world will squabble for first dibs on limited vaccine supplies – “fighting over the cake,” as a World Health Organisation official aptly described it – while leaving poorer countries trailing far behind in their vaccination efforts.

Certainly, there’s a real danger that the EU’s export controls will end up hampering overall vaccine production by sparking a trade war over raw materials. This is somewhat ironic, given that few have been as outspoken about countries “unduly restricting access to vaccines” as the EU itself. As for global inequalities in vaccine access, make no mistake – they are shaping up to be very ugly indeed. It looks likely that poorer countries, having already faced an economic, social, and public health catastrophe, will struggle to vaccinate their most vulnerable citizens even as richer states give jabs to the majority of their populations.

Wealthy nations undoubtedly have a moral obligation to minimize the impact of these disparities. Nonetheless, wielding vaccine nationalism as a pejorative term is an unhelpful way to diagnose or even to address this problem. Given how the world is structured politically, the best way to ensure that vaccines reach poorer countries is for richer ones to vaccinate a critical mass of their own citizens as quickly as possible.

To condemn vaccine nationalism is to imply that, in the early summer of 2020 when governments began bidding for Advance Purchase Agreements with pharmaceutical companies, a more cooperative global approach would have been feasible. In reality, the political, bureaucratic and logistical structures to meet such a challenge did not exist. Some are still pointing to Covax, the consortium of institutions trying to facilitate global vaccine equality, as a path not taken. But Covax’s proposed strategy was neither realistic nor effective.

The bottom line here is that for governments around the world, whether democratic or not, legitimacy and political stability depends on protecting the welfare of their citizens – a basic principle that even critics of vaccine nationalism struggle to deny. Only slightly less important are the social unrest and geopolitical setbacks that states anticipate if they fall behind in the race to get economies back up and running.

In light of these pressures, Covax never stood a chance. Its task of forging agreement between an array of national, international and commercial players was bound to be difficult, and no state which had the industrial capacity or market access to secure its own vaccines could have afforded to wait and see if it would work. To meet Covax’s aim of vaccinating 20 per cent of the population in every country at the same speed, nations with the infrastructure to deliver vaccines would have had to wait for those that lacked it. They would have surrendered responsibility for the sensitive task of selecting and securing the best vaccines from among the multitude of candidates. (As late as November last year Covax had just nine vaccines in its putative global portfolio; it did not reach a deal with the first successful candidate, Pfizer-BioNTech, until mid-January).

But even if a more equitable approach to global vaccine distribution had been plausible, it wouldn’t necessarily have been more desirable. Seeing some states race ahead in the vaccine race is unsettling, but at least countries with the capacity to roll out vaccines are using it, and just as important, we are getting crucial information about how to organise vaccination campaigns from a range of different models. The peculiarity of the vaccine challenge means that, in the long run, having a few nations to serve as laboratories will probably prove more useful to everyone than a more monolithic approach that prioritises equality above all.

The EU’s experience is instructive here. Given its fraught internal politics, it really had no choice but to adopt a collective approach for its 27 member states. To do otherwise would have left less fortunate member states open to offers from Russia and China. Still, the many obstacles and delays it has faced – ultimately driving it to impose its export controls – are illustrative of the costs imposed by coordination. Nor should we overlook the fact that its newfound urgency has come from the example of more successful strategies in Israel, the United States and United Kingdom.

Obviously, richer states should be helping Covax build up its financial and logistical resources as well as ensuring their own populations are vaccinated. Many are doing so already. What is still lacking are the vaccines themselves. Since wealthy states acting alone have been able to order in advance from multiple sources, they have gained access to an estimated 800 million surplus vaccine doses, or more than two billion when options are taken into account.

There’s no denying that if such hoarding continues in the medium-term, it will constitute an enormous moral failing. But rather than condemning governments for having favoured their own citizens in this way, we should focus on how that surplus can reach poorer parts of the world as quickly as possible.

This means, first, scaling up manufacturing to ease the supply bottlenecks which are making governments unsure of their vaccine supply. Most importantly though, it means concentrating on how nations that do have access to vaccines can most efficiently get them into people’s arms. The sooner they can see an end to the pandemic in sight, the sooner they can begin seriously diverting vaccines elsewhere. Obviously this will also require resolving the disputes sparked by the EU’s export controls, if necessary by other nations donating vaccines to the EU.

But we also need to have an urgent discussion about when exactly nations should stop prioritising their citizens. Governments should be pressured to state under what conditions they will deem their vaccine supply sufficient to focus on global redistribution. Personally, not being in a high-risk category, I would like to see a vaccine reach vulnerable people in other countries before it reaches me. Admittedly the parameters of this decision are not yet fully in view, with new strains emerging and the nature of herd immunity still unclear. But it would be a more productive problem to focus our attention on than the issue of vaccine nationalism as such.

What’s really at stake in the fascism debate

This essay was originally published by Arc magazine on January 27th 2021.

Many themes of the Trump presidency reached a crescendo on January 6th, when the now-former president’s supporters rampaged through the Capitol building. Among those themes is the controversy over whether we should label the Trump movement “fascist.”

This argument has flared-up at various points since Trump won the Republican nomination in 2015. After the Capitol attack, commentators who warned of a fascist turn in American politics have been rushed back into interview slots and op-ed columns. Doesn’t this attempt by a violent, propaganda-driven mob to overturn last November’s presidential election vindicate their claims?

Many themes of the Trump presidency reached a crescendo on January 6th, when the now-former president’s supporters rampaged through the Capitol building. Among those themes is the controversy over whether we should label the Trump movement “fascist.”

This argument has flared-up at various points since Trump won the Republican nomination in 2015. After the Capitol attack, commentators who warned of a fascist turn in American politics have been rushed back into interview slots and op-ed columns. Doesn’t this attempt by a violent, propaganda-driven mob to overturn last November’s presidential election vindicate their claims?

If Trumpism continues after Trump, then so will this debate. But whether the fascist label is descriptively accurate has always struck me as the least rewarding part. Different people mean different things by the word, and have different aims in using it. Here’s a more interesting question: What is at stake if we choose to identify contemporary politics as fascist?

Many on the activist left branded Trump’s project fascist from the outset. This is not just because they are LARPers trying to re-enact the original anti-fascist struggles of the 1920s and 30s — even if Antifa, the most publicized radicals on the left, derive their name and flag from the communist Antifaschistische Aktion movement of early 1930s Germany. More concretely, the left’s readiness to invoke fascism reflects a longstanding, originally Marxist convention of using “fascist” to describe authoritarian and racist tendencies deemed inherent to capitalism.

From this perspective, the global shift in politics often labeled “populist” — including not just Trump, but also Brexit, the illiberal regimes of Eastern Europe, Narendra Modi’s India, and Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil — is another upsurge of the structural forces that gave rise to fascism in the interwar period, and therefore deserves the same name.

In mainstream liberal discourse, by contrast, the debates about Trumpism and fascism have a strangely indecisive, unending quality. Journalists and social media pundits often defer to experts, so arguments devolve into bickering about who really counts as an expert and what they’ve actually said. After the Capitol attack, much of the discussion pivoted on brief comments by historians Robert Paxton and Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Paxton claimedin private correspondence that the Capitol attack “crosses the red line” beyond which the “F word” is appropriate, while on Twitter Ben-Ghiat drew a parallel with Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome.

Meanwhile, even experts who have consistently equated Trumpism and fascism continue adding caveats and qualifications. Historian Timothy Snyder, who sounded the alarm in 2017 with his book On Tyrannyrecently described Trump’s politics as “pre-fascist” and his lies about election fraud as “structurally fascist,” leaving for the future the possibility Trump’s Republican enablers could “become the fascist faction.” Philosopher Jason Stanley, who makes a version of the left’s fascism-as-persistent-feature argument, does not claim that the label is definitive so much as a necessary framing, highlighting important aspects of Trump’s politics.

The hesitancy of the fascism debate reflects the difficulty of assigning a banner to movements that don’t claim it. A broad theory of fascism unavoidably relies on the few major examples of avowedly fascist regimes— especially interwar Italy and Germany –– even if, as Stanley has detailed in his book How Fascism Works, such regimes drew inspiration from the United States, and inspired Hindu nationalists in India. This creates an awkward relationship between fascism as empirical phenomenon and fascism as theoretical construct, and means there will always be historians stepping in, as Richard Evans recently did, to point out all the ways that 1920s-30s fascism was fundamentally different from the 21st century movements which are compared to it.

But there’s another reason the term “fascism” remains shrouded in perpetual controversy, one so obvious it’s rarely explored: The concept has maintained an aura of seriousness, of genuine evil, such that acknowledging its existence seems to represent a moral and political crisis. The role of fascism in mainstream discourse is like the hammer that sits in the box marked “in case of emergency break glass” — we might point to it and talk about breaking the glass one day, but actually doing so would signify a kind of rupture in the fabric of politics, opening up a world where extreme measures would surely be justified.

We see this in the impulse to ask “do we really want to call everyone who voted for fascist?” “Aren’t we being alarmist?” And “if we use that word now, what will we use when things get much worse?” Stanley has acknowledged this trepidation, suggesting it shows we’ve become accustomed to things that should be considered a crisis. I would argue otherwise. It reflects the crucial place of fascism in grand narrative of liberal democracy, especially after the Cold War — a narrative that relies on the idea of fascism as a historical singularity.

This first occurred to me when I visited Holocaust memorials in Berlin, and realized, to my surprise, that they had all been erected quite recently. The first were the Jewish Museum and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, both disturbingly beautiful, evocative structures, conceived during the 1990s, after the collapse of communist East Germany, and opened between 2000–2005. Over the next decade, these were followed by smaller memorials to various other groups the Nazis persecuted: homosexuals, the Sinti and Roma, the disabled.

There were obvious reasons for these monuments to appear at this time and place. Post-reunification, Germany was reflecting on its national identity, and Berlin had been the capital of the Third Reich. But they still strike me as an excellent representation of liberal democracies’ need to identify memories and values that bind them together, especially when they could no longer contrast themselves to the USSR.

Vanquishing fascist power in the Second World War was and remains a foundational moment. Even as they recede into a distant, mythic past, the horrors overcome at that moment still grip the popular imagination. We saw this during the Brexit debate, when the most emotionally appealing argument for European integration referred back to its original, post-WWII purpose: constraining nationalism. And as the proliferation of memorials in Berlin suggests, fascism can retroactively be defined as the ultimate antithesis to what has, from the 1960s onwards, become liberalism’s main moral purpose: protection and empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups in society.

The United States plays a huge part in maintaining this narrative throughout the West and the English-speaking world, producing an endless stream of books, movies, and documentaries about the Second World War. The American public’s appetite for it seems boundless. That war is infused with a sense of heroism and tragedy unlike any other. But all of this stems from the unique certainty regarding the evil nature of 20th century European fascism.

This is why those who want to identify fascism in the present will always encounter skepticism and reluctance. Fascism is a moral singularity, a point of convergence in otherwise divided societies, because it is a historical singularity, the fixed source from which our history flows. To remove fascism from this foundational position – and worse, to implicate us in tolerating it – is morally disorientating. It raises the suspicion that, while claiming to separate fascism from the European historical example, those who invoke the term are actually trading off the emotional impact of that very example.

I don’t think commentators like Snyder and Stanley have such cynical intentions, and nor do I believe it’s a writer’s job to respect the version of history held dear by the public. Nonetheless, those who try to be both theorists and passionate opponents of fascism must recognize that they are walking a tightrope.

By making fascism a broader, more abstract signifier, and thereby bringing the term into the grey areas of semantic and historiographical bickering, they risk diminishing the aura of singular evil that surrounds fascism in the popular consciousness. But this is an aura which, surely, opponents of fascism should want to maintain.

After the Capitol, the battle for the dream machine

Sovereign is he who decides on the exception. In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, Facebook’s VP of integrity Guy Rosen declared: “This is an emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump’s video.” This came as Trump’s supporters, like a hoard of pantomime barbarians, were carrying out their surreal sacking of the Washington Capitol, and the US president attempted to publish a video which, in Rosen’s words, “contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence.” In the video, Trump had told the mob to go home, but continued to insist that the election of November 2020 had been fraudulent.

The following day Mark Zuckerberg announced that the sitting president would be barred from Facebook and Instagram indefinitely, and at least “until the peaceful transition of power is complete.” Zuckerberg reflected that “we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules,” so as to give the public “the broadest possible access to political speech,” but that “the current context is now fundamentally different.”

Yesterday Trump’s main communication platform, Twitter, went a step further and suspended the US president permanently (it had initially suspended Trump’s account for 12 hours during the Capitol riot). Giving its rationale for the decision, Twitter also insisted its policy was to “enable the public to hear from elected officials” on the basis that “the people have a right to hold power to account in the open.” It stated, however, that “In the context of horrific events this week,” it had decided “recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them – specifically how they are being received and interpreted” (my emphasis) amounted to a violation of its rules against incitement to violence.

These emergency measures by the big tech companies were the most significant development in the United States this week, not the attack on the Capitol itself. In the language used to justify to them, we hear the unmistakable echoes of a constitutional sovereign claiming its authority to decide how the rules should be applied – for between the rules and their application there is always judgment and discretion – and more importantly, to decide that a crisis demands an exceptional interpretation of the rules. With that assertion of authority, Silicon Valley has reminded us – even if it would have preferred not to – where ultimate power lies in a new era of American politics. It does not lie in the ability to raise a movement of brainwashed followers, but in the ability to decide who is allowed the means to do so.

The absurd assault on the Capitol was an event perfectly calibrated to demonstrate this configuration of power. First, the seriousness of the event – a violent attack against an elected government, however spontaneous – forced the social media companies to reveal their authority by taking decisive action. In doing so, of course, they also showed the limits of their authority (no sovereignty is absolute, after all). The tech giants are eager to avoid being implicated in a situation that would justify greater regulation, or perhaps even dismemberment by a Democrat government. Hence their increasing willingness over the last six months, as a Democratic victory in the November elections loomed, to actively regulate the circulation of pro-Trump propaganda with misinformation warnings, content restrictions and occasional bans on outlets such as the New York Post, following its Hunter Biden splash on the eve of the election.

It should be remembered that the motivations of companies like Facebook and Twitter are primarily commercial rather than political. They must keep their monopolistic hold on the public sphere intact to safeguard their data harvesting and advertising mechanisms. This means they need to show lawmakers that they will wield authority over their digital fiefdoms in an appropriate fashion.

Trump’s removal from these platforms was therefore over determined, especially after Wednesday’s debacle in Washington. Yes, the tech companies want to signal their political allegiance to the Democrats, but they also need to show that their virtual domains will not destabilize the United States to the extent that it is no longer an inviting place to do business – for that too would end in greater regulation. They were surely looking for an excuse to get rid of Trump, but from their perspective, the Capitol invasion merited action by itself. It was never going to lead to the overturning of November’s election, still less the toppling of the regime; but it could hardly fail to impress America’s allies, not to mention the global financial elite, as an obvious watershed in the disintegration of the country’s political system.

But it was also the unseriousness of Wednesday’s events that revealed why control of the media apparatus is so important. A popular take on the Capitol invasion itself – and, given the many surreal images of the buffoonish rioters, a persuasive one – is that it was the ultimate demonstration of the United States’ descent into a politics of fantasy; what the theorist Bruno Maçães calls “Dreampolitik.” Submerged in the alternative realities of partisan media and infused with the spirit of Hollywood, Americans have come to treat political action as a kind of role-play, a stage where the iconic motifs of history are unwittingly reenacted as parody. Who could be surprised that an era when a significant part of America has convinced itself that it is fighting fascism, and another that it is ruled by a conspiracy of pedophiles, has ended with men in horned helmets, bird-watching camouflage and MAGA merchandise storming the seat of government with chants of “U-S-A”?

At the very least, it is clear that Trump’s success as an insurgent owes a great deal to his embrace of followers whose view of politics is heavily colored by conspiracy theories, if not downright deranged. The Capitol attack was the most remarkable evidence to date of how such fantasy politics can be leveraged for projects with profound “real world” implications. It was led, after all, by members of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, and motivated by elaborate myths of a stolen election. Barack Obama was quite right to call it the product of a “fantasy narrative [which] has spiraled further and further from reality… [building] upon years of sown resentments.”

But while there is justifiably much fascination with this new form of political power, it must be remembered that such fantasy narratives are a superstructure. They can only operate through the available technological channels – that is, through the media, all of which is today centred around the major social media platforms. The triumph of Dreampolitik at the Capitol therefore only emphasises the significance of Facebook and Twitter’s decisive action against Trump. For whatever power is made available through the postmodern tools of partisan narrative and alternative reality, an even greater power necessarily belongs to those who can grant or deny access to these tools.

And this week’s events are, of course, just the beginning. The motley insurrection of the Trumpists will serve as a justification, if one was needed, for an increasingly strict regime of surveillance and censorship by major social media platforms, answering to their investors and to the political class in Washington. Already the incoming president Joe Biden has stated his intentions to introduce new legislation against “domestic terrorism,” which will no doubt involve the tech giants maintaining their commercial dominance in return for carrying out the required surveillance and reporting of those deemed subversive. Meanwhile, Google and Apple yesterday issued an ultimatum to the platform Parler, which offers the same basic model as Twitter but with laxer content rules, threatening to banish it from their app stores if it did not police conversation more strictly.

But however disturbing the implications of this crackdown, we should welcome the clarity we got this week. For too long, the tech giants have been able to pose as neutral arbiters of discussion, cloaking their authority in corporate euphemisms about public interest. Consequently, they have been able to set the terms of communication over much of the world according to their own interests and political calculations. Whether or not they were right to banish Trump, the key fact is that it was they who had the authority to do so, for their own reasons. The increasing regulation of social media – which was always inevitable, in one form or another, given its incendiary potential – will now proceed according to the same logic. Hopefully the dramatic nature of their decisions this week will make us question if this is really a tolerable situation.

Poland and Hungary are exposing the EU’s flaws

The European Union veered into another crisis on Monday, as the governments of Hungary and Poland announced they would veto the bloc’s next seven-year budget. This comes after the European Parliament and Council tried to introduce “rule of law” measures for punishing member states that breach democratic standards — measures that Budapest and Warsaw, the obvious target of such sanctions, have declared unacceptable.

As I wrote last week, it is unlikely that the disciplinary mechanism would actually have posed a major threat to either the Fidesz regime in Hungary or the Law and Justice one in Poland. These stubborn antagonists of European liberalism have long threatened to block the entire budget if it came with meaningful conditions attached. That they have used their veto anyway suggests the Hungarian and Polish governments — or at least the hardline factions within them — feel they can extract further concessions.

There’s likely to be a tense video conference on Thursday as EU leaders attempt to salvage the budget. It’s tempting to assume a compromise will be found that allows everyone to save face (that is the European way), but the ongoing impasse has angered both sides. At least one commentator has statedthat further concessions to Hungary and Poland would amount to “appeasement of dictators.”

In fact compromises with illiberal forces are far from unprecedented in the history of modern democracy. The EU constitution that limits the power of federal institutions is what allows actors like Orban to misbehave — something the Hungarian Prime Minister has exploited to great effect.

And yet, it doesn’t help that the constitutional procedures in question — the treaties of the European Union — were so poorly designed in the first place. Allowing single states an effective veto over key policy areas is a recipe for dysfunction, as the EU already found out in September when Cyprus blockedsanctions against Belarus.

More to the point, the current deadlock with Hungary and Poland has come about because the existing Article 7 mechanism for disciplining member states is virtually unenforceable (both nations have been subject to Article 7 probes for several years, to no effect).

But this practical shortcoming also points to an ideological one. As European politicians have admitted, the failure to design a workable disciplinary mechanism shows the project’s architects did not take seriously the possibility that, once countries had made the democratic reforms necessary to gain access to the EU, they might, at a later date, move back in the opposite direction. Theirs was a naïve faith in the onwards march of liberal democracy.

In this sense, the crisis now surrounding the EU budget is another product of that ill-fated optimism which gripped western elites around the turn of the 21stcentury. Like the governing class in the United States who felt sure China would reform itself once invited into the comity of nations, the founders of the European Union had too rosy a view of liberalism’s future — and their successors are paying the price.

Europe’s deplorables have outwitted Brussels

This essay was originally published by Unherd on November 10th 2020

Throughout the autumn, the European Union has been engaged in a standoff with its two most antagonistic members, Hungary and Poland. At stake was whether the EU would finally take meaningful action against these pioneers of “illiberal democracy”, to use the infamous phrase of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. As of last week — and despite appearances to the contrary — it seems the Hungarian and Polish regimes have postponed the reckoning once more.

Last week, representatives of the European Parliament triumphantly announced a new disciplinary mechanism which, they claimed, would enable Brussels to withhold funds from states that violate liberal democratic standards. According to MEP Petri Sarvamaa, it meant the end of “a painful phase [in] the recent history of the European Union”, in which “the basic values of democracy” had been “threatened and undermined”.

No names were named, of course, but they did not need to be. Tensions between the EU and the recalcitrant regimes on its eastern periphery, Hungary under Orbán’s Fidesz and Poland under the Law and Justice Party, have been mounting for years. Those governments’ erosion of judicial independence and media freedom, as well as concerns over corruption, education, and minority rights, have resulted in a series of formal investigations and legal actions. And that is not to mention the constant rhetorical fusillades between EU officials and Budapest and Warsaw.

The new disciplinary mechanism is being presented as the means to finally bring Hungary and Poland to heel, but it is no such thing. Though not exactly toothless, it is unlikely to pose a serious threat to the illiberal pretenders in the east. Breaches of “rule of law” standards will only be sanctioned if they affect EU funds — so the measures are effectively limited to budget oversight. Moreover, enforcing the sanctions will require a weighted majority of member states in the European Council, giving Hungary or Poland ample room to assemble a blocking coalition.

In fact, what we have here is another sticking plaster so characteristic of the complex and unwieldy structures of European supranational democracy. The political dynamics of this system, heavily reliant on horse-trading and compromise, have allowed Hungary and Poland to outmanoeuvre their opponents.

The real purpose of the disciplinary measures is to ensure the timely passage of next EU budget, and in particular, a €750 billion coronavirus relief fund. That package will, for the first time, see member states issuing collective debt backed by their taxpayers, and therefore has totemic significance for the future of the Union. It is a real indication that fiscal integration might be possible in the EU — a step long regarded as crucial to the survival of Europe’s federal ambitions, and one that shows its ability to respond effectively to a major crisis.

But this achievement has almost been derailed by a showdown with Hungary and Poland. Liberal northern states such as Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands, together with the European Parliament, insisted that financial support should be conditional on upholding EU values and transparency standards. But since the relief fund requires unanimous approval, Hungary or Poland can simply veto the whole initiative, which is exactly what they have been threatening to do.

In other words, the EU landed itself with a choice between upholding its liberal commitments and securing its future as a viable political and economic project. The relatively weak disciplinary mechanism shows that European leaders are opting for the latter, as they inevitably would. It is a compromise that allows the defenders of democratic values to save face, while essentially letting Hungary and Poland off the hook. (Of course this doesn’t rule out the possibility that the Hungarian and Polish governments will continue making a fuss anyway.)

Liberals who place their hopes in the European project may despair at this, but these dilemmas are part and parcel of binding different regions and cultures in a democratic system. Such undertakings need strict constitutional procedures to hold them together, but those same procedures create opportunities to game the system, especially as demands in one area can be tied with cooperation in another.

As he announced the new rule of law agreement, Sarvamaa pointed to Donald Trump’s threat to win the presidential election via the Supreme Court as evidence of the need to uphold democratic standards. In truth, what is happening in Europe bears a closer resemblance to America in the 1930s, when F.D. Roosevelt was forced to make concessions to the Southern states to deliver his New Deal agenda.

That too was a high-stakes attempt at federal consolidation and economic repair, with the Great Depression at its height and democracy floundering around the world. As the political historian Ira Katznelson has noted,Roosevelt only succeeded by making “necessary but often costly illiberal alliances” — in particular, alliances with Southern Democratic legislators who held an effective veto in Congress. The result was that New Deal programs either avoided or actively upheld white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. (Key welfare programs, for instance, were designed to exclude some two-thirds of African American employees in the Southern states).

According to civil rights campaigner Walter White, Roosevelt himself explained his silence on a 1934 bill to combat the lynching of African Americans as follows: “I’ve got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America… If I come out for the anti-lynching bill, they [the Southern Democrats] will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take that risk.”

This is not to suggest any moral equivalence between the Europe’s “illiberal democracies” and the Deep South of the 1930s. But the Hungarian and Polish governments do resemble the experienced Southern politicians of the New Deal era in their ability to manoeuvre within a federal framework, achieving an autonomy that belies their economic dependency. They have learned to play by the letter of the rules as well as to subvert them.

Orbán, for instance, has frequently insisted that his critics make a formal legal case against him, whereupon he has managed to reduce sanctions to mere technicalities. He has skilfully leveraged the arithmetic of the European Parliament to keep Fidesz within the orbit of the mainstream European People’s Party group. In September, the Hungarian and Polish governments even announced plans to establish their own institute of comparative legal studies, aiming to expose the EU’s “double standards.”

And now, with their votes required to pass the crucial relief fund, the regimes in Budapest and Warsaw are taking advantage of exceptionally high stakes much as their Southern analogues in the 1930s did. They have, in recent months, become increasingly defiant in their rejection of European liberalism. In September, Orbán published a searing essay in which he hailed a growing “rebellion against liberal intellectual oppression” in the western world. The recent anti-abortion ruling by the Polish high court is likewise a sign of that state’s determination to uphold Catholic values and a robust national identity.

Looking forward, however, it seems clear this situation cannot continue forever. Much has been made of Joe Biden’s hostility to the Hungarian and Polish regimes, and with his election victory, we may see the US attaching its own conditions to investment in Eastern Europe. But Biden cannot question the EU’s standards too much, since he has made the latter out to be America’s key liberal partner. The real issue is that if richer EU states are really going to accept the financial burdens of further integration, they will not tolerate deviant nations wielding outsized influence on key policy areas.

Of course such reforms would require an overhaul of the voting system, which means treaty change. This raises a potential irony: could the intransigence of Hungary and Poland ultimately spur on Europe’s next big constitutional step — one that will see their leverage taken away? Maybe. For the time being, the EU is unlikely to rein in the illiberal experiments within its borders.

The Philosophy of Rupture: How the 1920s Gave Rise to Intellectual Magicians

This essay was originally published by Areo magazine on 4th November 2020.

When it comes to intellectual history, Central Europe in the decade of the 1920s presents a paradox. It was an era when revolutionary thought – original and iconoclastic ideas and modes of thinking – was not in fact revolutionary, but almost the norm. And the results are all around us today. The 1920s were the final flourish in a remarkable period of path-breaking activity in German-speaking Europe, one that laid many of the foundations for both analytic and continental philosophy, for psychology and sociology, and for several branches of legal philosophy and of theoretical science.

This creative ferment is partly what people grasp at when they refer to the “spirit” of the ’20s, especially in Germany’s Weimar Republic. But this doesn’t help us understand where that spirit came from, or how it draws together the various thinkers who, in hindsight, seem to be bursting out of their historical context rather than sharing it.

Wolfram Eilenberger attempts one solution to that problem in his new book, Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought, 1919-1929. He manages to weave together the ideas of four philosophers – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer – by showing how they emerged from those thinkers’ personal lives. We get colourful accounts of money troubles, love affairs, career struggles and mental breakdowns, each giving way to a discussion of the philosophical material. In this way, the personal and intellectual journeys of the four protagonists are linked in an expanding web of experiences and ideas.

This is a satisfying format. There’s just no denying the voyeuristic pleasure of peering into these characters’ private lives, whether it be Heidegger’s and Benjamin’s attempts to rationalise their adulterous tendencies, or the series of car crashes that was Wittgenstein’s social life. Besides, it’s always useful to be reminded that, with the exception of the genuinely upstanding Cassirer, these great thinkers were frequently selfish, delusional, hypocritical and insecure. Just like the rest of us then.

But entertaining as it is, Eilenberger’s biographical approach does not really cast much light on that riddle of the age: why was this such a propitious time for magicians? If anything, his portraits play into the romantic myth of the intellectual window-breaker as a congenital outsider and unusual genius – an ideal that was in no small part erected by this very generation. This is a shame because, as I’ll try to show later, these figures become still more engaging when considered not just as brilliant individuals, but also as products of their time.

First, it’s worth looking at how Eilenberger manages to draw parallels between the four philosophers’ ideas, for that is no mean feat. Inevitably this challenge makes his presentation selective and occasionally tendentious, but it also produces some imaginative insights.

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At first sight, Wittgenstein seems an awkward fit for this book, seeing as he did not produce any philosophy during the decade in question. His famous early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, claimed to have solved the problems of philosophy “on all essential points.” So we are left with the (admittedly fascinating) account of how he signed away his vast inheritance, trained as a primary school teacher, and moved through a series of remote Austrian towns becoming increasingly isolated and depressed.

But this does leave Eilenberger plenty of space to discuss the puzzling Tractatus. He points out, rightly, that Wittgenstein’s mission to establish once and for all what can meaningfully be said – that is, what kinds of statements actually make sense – was far more than an attempt to rid philosophy of metaphysical hokum (even if that was how his logical-empiricist fans in Cambridge and the Vienna Circle wanted to read the work).

Wittgenstein did declare that the only valid propositions were those of natural science, since these alone shared the same logical structure as empirical reality, and so could capture an existing or possible “state of affairs” in the world. But as Wittgenstein freely admitted, this meant the Tractatus itself was nonsense. Therefore its reader was encouraged to disregard the very claims which had established how to judge claims, to “throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.” Besides, it remained the case that “even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”

According to Eilenberger, who belongs to the “existentialist Wittgenstein” school, the Tractatus’ real goals were twofold. First, to save humanity from pointless conflict by clarifying what could be communicated with certainty. And second, to emphasise the degree to which our lives will always be plagued by ambiguity – by that which can only be “shown,” not said – and hence by decisions that must be taken on the basis of faith.

This reading allows Eilenberger to place Wittgenstein in dialogue with Heidegger and Benjamin. The latter both styled themselves as abrasive outsiders: Heidegger as the Black Forest peasant seeking to subvert academic philosophy from within, Benjamin as the struggling journalist and flaneur who, thanks to his erratic behaviour and idiosyncratic methods, never found an academic post. By the end of the ’20s, they had gravitated towards the political extremes, with Heidegger eventually joining the Nazi party and Benjamin flirting with Communism.

Like many intellectuals at this time, Heidegger and Benjamin were interested in the consequences of the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the 17th century, the revolutions of Galileo and Descartes, which had produced the characteristic dualism of modernity: the separation of the autonomous, thinking subject from a scientific reality governed by natural laws. Both presented this as an illusory and fallen state, in which the world had been stripped of authentic human purpose and significance.

Granted, Heidegger did not think such fine things were available to most of humanity anyway. As he argued in his masterpiece Being and Time, people tend to seek distraction in mundane tasks, social conventions and gossip. But it did bother him that philosophers had forgotten about “the question of the meaning of Being.” To ask this question was to realise that, before we come to do science or anything else, we are always already “thrown” into an existence we have neither chosen nor designed, and which we can only access through the meanings made available by language and by the looming horizon of our own mortality.

Likewise, Benjamin insisted language was not a means of communication or rational thought, but an aesthetic medium through which the world was revealed to us. In his work on German baroque theatre, he identified the arrival of modernity with a tragic distortion in that medium. Rather than a holistic existence in which in which everything had its proper name and meaning – an existence that, for Benjamin, was intimately connected with the religious temporality of awaiting salvation – the very process of understanding had become arbitrary and reified, so that any given symbol might as well stand for any given thing.

As Eilenberger details, both Heidegger and Benjamin found some redemption in the idea of decision – a fleeting moment when the superficial autonomy of everyday choices gave way to an all-embracing realisation of purpose and fate. Benjamin identified such potential in love and, on a collective and political level, in the “profane illuminations” of the metropolis, where the alienation of the modern subject was most profound. For Heidegger, only a stark confrontation with death could produce a truly “authentic” decision. (This too had political implications, which Eilenberger avoids: Heidegger saw the “possibilities” glimpsed in these moments as handed down by tradition to each generation, leaving the door open to a reactionary idea of authenticity as something a community discovers in its past).

If Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Benjamin were outsiders and “conceptual wrecking balls,” Ernst Cassirer cuts a very different figure. His inclusion in this book is the latest sign of an extraordinary revival in his reputation over the past fifteen years or so. That said, some of Eilenberger’s remarks suggest Cassirer has not entirely shaken off the earlier judgment, that he was merely “an intellectual bureaucrat,” “a thoroughly decent man and thinker, but not a great one.”

Cassirer was the last major figure in the Neo-Kantian tradition, which had dominated German academic philosophy from the mid-19th century until around 1910. At this point, it grew unfashionable for its associations with scientific positivism and naïve notions of rationality and progress (not to mention the presence of prominent Jewish scholars like Cassirer within its ranks). The coup de grâce was delivered by Heidegger himself at the famous 1929 “Davos debate” with Cassirer, the event which opens and closes Eilenberger’s book. Here contemporaries portrayed Cassirer as an embodiment of “the old thinking” that was being swept away.

That judgment was not entirely accurate. It’s true that Cassirer was an intellectual in the mould of 19th century Central European liberalism, committed to human progress and individual freedom, devoted to science, culture and the achievements of German classicism. Not incidentally, he was the only one of our four thinkers to wholeheartedly defend Germany’s Weimar democracy. But he was also an imaginative, versatile and unbelievably prolific philosopher.

Cassirer’s three-volume project of the 1920s, The Theory of Symbolic Forms, showed that he, too, understood language and meaning as largely constitutive of reality. But for Cassirer, the modern scientific worldview was not a debasement of the subject’s relationship to the world, but a development of the same faculty which underlay language, myth and culture – that of representing phenomena through symbolic forms. It was, moreover, an advance. The logical coherence of theoretical science, and the impersonal detachment from nature it afforded, was the supreme example of how human beings achieved freedom: by understanding the structure of the world they inhabited to ever greater degrees.

But nor was Cassirer dogmatic in his admiration for science. His key principle was the plurality of representation and understanding, allowing the same phenomenon to be grasped in different ways. The scientist and artist are capable of different insights. More to the point, the creative process through which human minds devised new forms of representation was open ended. The very history of science, as of culture, showed that there were always new symbolic forms to be invented, transforming our perception of the world in the process.

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It would be unfair to say Eilenberger gives us no sense of how these ideas relate to the context in which they were formed; his biographical vignettes do offer vivid glimpses of life in 1920s Europe. But that context is largely personal, and rarely social, cultural or intellectual. As a result, the most striking parallel of all – the determination of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Benjamin to upend the premises of the philosophical discipline, and that of Cassirer to protect them – can only be explained in terms of personality. This is misleading.

A time-traveller visiting Central Europe in the years after 1918 could not help but notice that all things intellectual were in a state of profound flux. Not only was Neo-Kantianism succumbing to a generation of students obsessed with metaphysics, existence and (in the strict sense) nihilism. Every certainty was being forcefully undermined: the superiority of European culture in Oswald Spengler’s bestselling Decline of the West (1918); the purpose and progress of history in Ernst Troeltsch’s “Crisis of Historicism” (1922); the Protestant worldview in Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans (1919); and the structure of nature itself in Albert Einstein’s article “On the Present Crisis in Theoretical Physics” (1922).

In these years, even the concept of revolution was undergoing a revolution, as seen in the influence of unorthodox Marxist works like György Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness (1923). And this is to say nothing of what our time-traveller would discover in the arts. Dada, a movement dedicated to the destruction of bourgeois norms and sensibilities, had broken out in Zurich in 1917 and quickly spread to Berlin. Here it infused the works of brilliant but scandalous artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix.

German intellectuals, in other words, were conscious of living in an age of immense disruption. More particularly, they saw themselves as responding to world defined by rupture; or to borrow a term from Heidegger and Benjamin, by “caesura” – a decisive and irreversible break from the past.

It’s not difficult to imagine where that impression came from. This generation experienced the cataclysm of the First World War, an unprecedented bloodbath that discredited assumptions of progress even as it toppled ancient regimes (though among Eilenberger’s quartet, only Wittgenstein served on the front lines). In its wake came the febrile economic and political atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, which has invited so many comparisons to our own time. Less noticed is that the ’20s were also, like our era, a time of destabilising technological revolution, witnessing the arrival of radio, the expansion of the telephone, cinema and aviation, and a bevy of new capitalist practices extending from factory to billboard.

Nonetheless, in philosophy and culture, we should not imagine that an awareness of rupture emerged suddenly in 1918, or even in 1914. The war is best seen as an explosive catalyst which propelled and distorted changes already underway. The problems that occupied Eilenberger’s four philosophers, and the intellectual currents that drove them, stem for a deeper set of dislocations.

 Anxiety over the scientific worldview, and over philosophy’s relationship to science, was an inheritance from the 19thcentury. In Neo-Kantianism, Germany had produced a philosophy at ease with the advances of modern science. But paradoxically, this grew to be a problem when it became clear how momentous those advances really were. Increasingly science was not just producing strange new ways of seeing the world, but through technology and industry, reshaping it. Ultimately the Neo-Kantian holding pattern, which had tried to reconcile science with the humanistic traditions of the intellectual class, gave way. Philosophy became the site of a backlash against both.

But critics of philosophy’s subordination to science had their own predecessors to call on, not least with respect to the problem of language. Those who, like Heidegger and Benjamin, saw language not as a potential tool for representing empirical reality, but the medium which disclosed that reality to us (and who thus began to draw the dividing line between continental and Anglo-American philosophy), were sharpening a conflict that had simmered since the Enlightenment. They took inspiration from the 18th century mystic and scourge of scientific rationality, Johann Georg Hamann.

Meanwhile, the 1890s saw widespread recognition of the three figures most responsible for the post-war generation’s ideal of the radical outsider: Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. That generation would also be taught by the great pioneers of sociology in Germany, Max Weber and Georg Simmel, whose work recognised what many could feel around them: that modern society was impersonal, fragmented and beset by irresolvable conflicts of value.

In light of all this, it’s not surprising that the concept of rupture appears on several levels in Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Benjamin. They presented their works as breaks in and with the philosophical tradition. They reinterpreted history in terms of rupture, going back and seeking the junctures when pathologies had appeared and possibilities had been foreclosed. They emphasised the leaps of faith and moments of decision that punctuated the course of life.

Even the personal qualities that attract Eilenberger to these individuals – their eccentric behaviour, their search for authenticity – were not theirs alone. They were part of a generational desire to break with the old bourgeois ways, which no doubt seemed the only way to take ownership of such a rapidly changing world.

 

Biden versus Beijing