Dear Commons Community,
I have just finished reading Rob Rieman’s book, To Fight Against this Age: On Fascism and Humanism. Rieman is a cultural philosopher who founded the Nexus Institute (Amsterdam), a center devoted to intellectual reflection and cultural debate. Rieman’s book contains two pieces: “The Eternal Return of Fascism” and “The Return of Europa”.
“The Eternal Return…” is an essay written in 2010 and warned that fascism could return based on its politics of resentment, the incitement of anger and fear, looking for scapegoats, and the hatred of the life of the mind. Here are excerpts:
“The fact that fascism could gain political power in Italy and Germany was, to a great extent, a result of the hubris, as much as the cowardice and perfidy, of social elites…in 1932, they were happy for Hitler and his henchmen to take over. They assumed that they could keep him in check, and use the mistakes he would make to politically eliminate him.”
Quoting Primo Levi: “…it happened that an entire civilized people, followed a buffoon whose figure today inspires laughter, and yet Adolf Hitler was obeyed and his praises sung right up to the catastrophe.”
Question: Can we associate Rieman’s thesis with any world leaders today?
“The Return of Europa” is a story that examines the meaning of European humanism with its values of truth, beauty, justice, and love of life that are the origin and basis for democratic civilization. Rieman warns that Western society has replaced philosophy and religion with science and technology and:
“seeks to create the singular man based on robotics and artificial intelligence…”
“has fallen in love with data and information…”
“where the only value we still recognize is economic value…where only material things exist, everything has become money, everything is calculable, and reduced to a number.”
I highly recommend this short book that one can read in one rainy weekend as I did last Saturday and Sunday. Below is a New York Times Book Review of To Fight Against this Age…
TO FIGHT AGAINST THIS AGE
On Fascism and Humanism
By Rob Riemen
176 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $19.95.
Review by Damon Linker
One year after the Allied obliteration of the Third Reich, the historian Friedrich Meinecke published what would be one of the first efforts on the part of a German scholar and intellectual to come to terms with National Socialism. The slim volume, titled “The German Catastrophe,” traced the rise of the Nazis to a turning away during the 19th century from the glories of German high culture in favor of an obsession with economic efficiency that eventually led to the total mobilization of Hitler’s rabidly nationalist war machine.
How could Germany inoculate itself against a future return of fascism? Meinecke proposed the creation of “Goethe communities” in cities across the country, with ceremonies in churches on Sundays devoted to the celebration of the great poet and other literary figures, accompanied by the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms.
It’s tempting to mock Meinecke’s faith in the power of humanism — poetry, literature, philosophy, music, art — to save Germany, and potentially the world, from political extremism. But this faith wasn’t unique to him. A century and a half before Meinecke published his reckoning with National Socialism, Goethe’s friend and contemporary Friedrich Schiller proposed an “aesthetic education” for the human race that would reunify the fractured modern soul, ensuring that the bloody, proto-totalitarian excesses of the French Revolution would never be repeated.
Now, seven decades after Meinecke, the Dutch author Rob Riemen has revived this tradition in our own time. Outraged by the rise of Geert Wilders and his far-right Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Riemen wrote an acidic pamphlet, “The Eternal Return of Fascism,” in 2010 that provoked alarm and sparked debate across Europe. Riemen followed it up a few years later with a more positive vision in “The Return of Europa: Her Tears, Deeds and Dreams,” a brief work of didactic fiction loosely modeled on Thomas Mann’s sublime philosophical novel, “The Magic Mountain.” With center-left parties in electoral free fall and right-wing populists surging in several countries of the European Union over the intervening years, Riemen’s dire warnings cannot help appearing prescient.
American readers who are rightly worried about similarly distressing developments in the United States will feel fortified by the publication of “To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism,” which brings these two pieces together in a single slim volume and establishes Riemen as an erudite, well-meaning and inspiring ally in the struggle to combat anti-liberal political trends. Whether he is an especially wise guide to that struggle is another matter.
The message of the book is simple, insistent and powerful: The West is not confronting a threat of “populism,” as so many contemporary analysts claim. It’s facing a threat of fascism — the form of modern mass politics that actively cultivates “our worst irrational sentiments: resentment, hatred, xenophobia, lust for power and fear!” Above all, fascism mobilizes ignorance and prejudice by nurturing and flattering them, by persuading democratic citizens to cut themselves off from the wisdom contained in “poetry and literature, philosophy and theology, the arts and history” — in short, from “the domain of culture” that puts us in touch with “what unites us and makes the unity of mankind possible.”
The proper response to the fascist threat, according to Riemen, is therefore education — the cultivation of individuals who are as “free and responsible” as “Socrates and Spinoza,” and also capable of resisting our “nihilist kitsch society” in which “nationalism, resentment and hatred” blossom and thrive. Education can accomplish this task by teaching the “care for the soul” that, at its peak, European culture exemplifies.
Riemen maintains that such an education in “culture, philosophy and art” can bring forth a “humanist society” that is “morally mature” and thus capable of standing against “the rebirth of nationalism, the triviality of technology, the vulgarity of commerce and the cultivated stupidity of the media and the universities.” Only when such an education has spread the love of “truth, goodness, beauty, friendship, justice, compassion and wisdom” will the West have succeeded in immunizing itself against “the deadly bacillus called fascism.”
No one who’s tasted the glories of European high culture or who’s appalled by the latter-day descent of our politics into the gutter can fail to be moved by Riemen’s rousing rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean his diagnosis of what ails us is correct, or his cure for it sensible.
Take his insistence, now widely shared by commentators on both sides of the Atlantic, that “fascism” is on the rise across the West. Yes, the centrist consensus of the postwar era, and especially the neoliberal one that has dominated since the end of the Cold War, is being challenged today by many on the right and some on the left. But is this challenge really best understood as a revival of the kind of politics that was practiced in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain?
In some respects, perhaps. But one necessary component is missing: a uniform, galvanizing ideology that could plausibly animate a centralized totalitarian state to co-opt civil society, driving out dissent by employing a combination of surveillance, repression and propaganda. The threat facing liberal politics today is quite different and in some ways the opposite: a rising tide of polarization and chaos in civil society driven by numerous forces, some structural (social media) but others political (right-wing disinformation, Russian meddling), that threatens to empower a form of postmodern, kleptocratic authoritarianism. That’s certainly bad, and potentially antidemocratic. But it’s not fascism.
The error is important not only because inaccurately tossing around the f-word contributes to the hyperbole that is turning civil society into a circus of inflammatory charges and countercharges, but also because it reveals a serious failure of understanding — one that’s troublingly pervasive in Europe and even common among a distressingly large number of American liberals.
The misunderstanding concerns nothing less than the nature of politics itself. For many liberals, politics involves bureaucratic administration, the management of government benefits and the jostling of interest groups. One party or coalition tweaks the numbers in one direction, another nudges them a different way. Such fiddling with policy is a good part of modern politics. But it’s not the whole of politics. At a more elemental level, the one to which Aristotle directed much of his attention, politics is about more existential issues: this bounded community in this place with this history and heritage, determining its own character for itself, deciding who is and who is not a citizen, who will rule and in the name of which vision of the good life.
After the cataclysm of World War II, European leaders concluded that the disaster was a product of an excess of politics in this elemental sense. Emphasizing certain transcendent themes in Western humanism, they advocated the universalism of human rights and denigrated any and all attachment to particular nations or cultures. The Common Market and then the European Union itself were experiments in devising a postpolitical politics that treated particular attachments as morally unacceptable and therefore politically out of bounds. Favoring anything less than open borders became invariably xenophobic, caring about the ethnic and cultural character of one’s own nation became invariably racist and fearing outsiders who wish to do it harm became invariably fascist.
For a while it looked as if Europe’s experiment in forging an antipolitical politics might succeed. Not so much anymore.
Riemen’s book is admirable in many ways, but it is an unusually hermetic example of the thinking that led so many Europeans to believe in the first place that it was possible, necessary and desirable to produce a civilization in which citizens are expected to look down on the love that has always defined citizenship — the love of one’s own. We have ample reason to doubt that liberal politics can be saved by more of the same.