Re-thinking Spengler Part 4: Bourgeoisie vs Romantics

Let me begin with the conclusion I reached from the last two posts which I never spelled out concisely:  I don’t find Spengler’s concept of pseudomorphosis to be valid. The idea that the dominance of one culture over another leads to hatred independent of the far more obvious psychological explanations that come from being politically disenfranchised (Nietzsche’s slave morality) doesn’t stack up for me, especially as Spengler shows a lack of rigor by extrapolating this one special concept from only two examples (the Magian and a hypothesised modern Russian that seems to rest on little more evidence than Dostoevsky novels).

If it was underlying cultural differences that really drove such hatreds, how can we explain the incessant violence and hatred of all the different Magian religions and societies (Islamic, Jewish, Orthodox Christian, Western Christian) against each other? Why have European Faustians for centuries committed violence against each other every bit as bad as that which they committed against people of different cultures?

More generally, doesn’t the most deep-seated hatred arise from those who are closest to us? Don’t we hate friends who have betrayed us far more than our worst enemies? And don’t family feuds often lead to loathing that lasts a lifetime?

Furthermore, even if it was true that there was a relation between cultures which was destructive and led to hatred, that does not rule out the possibility that there could also be the opposite relation where cultures are mutually beneficial to each other leading to feelings of appreciation and affection. That is exactly the relation the early Faustian had with the Classical-Magian symbiosis. Faustian culture worshipped the Classical-Magian and rightly so because it was on that foundation that the Faustian raised itself.

Spengler was perfectly well aware of this. He repeatedly laments the fact that even some modern Europeans were still in thrall to Classical thinking. But he never gave this dynamic a name because he sees it as a problem. The underlying pessimism behind the pseudomorphosis concept was a feature of the German intelligentsia going back at least to Schopenhauer. We’ll examine what I believe to be the root of it later.

Firstly, though, let’s look at an example of cultural sharing that contrasts with Spengler’s default assumption that cultures are in a Darwinian struggle to the death.

Everybody knows that modern rock and jazz music are derived from the blues and that the blues originated in west African folk music. African folk music influenced black American culture leading to the R&B and early jazz music that was played mostly in small clubs and which developed an underground following in the US in the early 20th century. Later on, that milieu gave birth to rock’n’roll and, as rock’n’roll relied on technology such as electric guitars, amplifiers, electricity and light shows, I think we can properly call rock’n’roll Faustian music.

There’s a scene in the 90s movie White Men Can’t Jump which, funnily enough, explores this progression of rock music from its African roots in a Spenglerian fashion.

Wesley Snipes’ character is in the car with Woody Harrelson’s character. It’s Woody Harrelson’s car and he’s got Jimi Hendrix playing on the car stereo. Wesley Snipes’ character tells him “you can’t hear Jimi” (because you’re white). An argument ensues in which Harrelson’s girlfriend points out that the rest of Jimi’s band was white and so the argument on racial lines makes no sense.

If we assume that rock music belongs to Faustian culture and blues music to African, then we also have to posit that, at some point in the progression from blues to rock, the music became truly Faustian? Where does Jimi Hendrix fit in that progression? Is he a blues player or a rock player? Is his music Faustian or African?

No doubt Spengler, as an unashamed elitist, would write off the pop culture reference as irrelevant. Nevertheless, this is exactly the same dynamic he identifies in Faustian culture. Just like rock music grew from exposure to the blues, Faustian culture grew from exposure to the Magian-Classical symbiosis. And just as there would have been a time when rock music became recognisably rock and no longer blues, there would have been a time when the Faustian became itself.

Of course, Spengler’s book deals with exactly this issue. It’s because Faustian culture had still not recognised itself as a historical entity that he needed to write The Decline of the West . The fact that Spengler became wildly popular after the book was published is evidence that many people were eager to hear just this kind of message. He was an overnight success in much the same way that the early rock’n’roll musicians were. What novel elements do we find in Spengler that could explain this enthusiastic reception by his contemporaries?

There is the positing of a cultural “soul” as the true location of “real” culture against the surface phenomena. In the terminology I have been using, Spengler’s is an esoteric account as contrasted with a materialist or exoteric account. This was something new since almost all historical scholarship up til that point had been concerned entirely with exoteric phenomena: the Who, the What and the When with almost nothing about the Why.

Spengler provided an explanation of the Why. He also provided a notion of identity that went beyond the nationalist categories that had dominated history until that point. Thus we have the Faustian “soul” and not the British or French or German. With the concept of soul, Spengler could also talk about emotions as historical phenomena.

In the pseudomorphosis concept, we see a deep hatred (esoteric) welling up from the soul when it is held back by external forces (exoteric). This hatred is not explained by external political and economic factors but by the more human factors of emotions and feelings. In this way, Spengler fits within the German romantic tradition with its emphasis on feeling over thinking and its predilection for emotional states that were mostly negative such as seen in the pessimist and nihilist movements.

This brings me back to a point I made in a post late last year about the underlying causes of German romanticism. The executive summary is this: following the French revolution, the concept of nationalism became dominant in Europe. The problem for Germany was that it was still a relatively dis-unified group of small states and, despite a popular desire to unify into a country, the politicians could not find a way to create a single nation-state. Many decades of failed political negotiations, riots, uprisings and attempted coups passed until finally the Prussians under Bismarck created the modern nation state of Germany in the 1870s.

Because of the political prevarication, there had been a significant push from the intellectual sphere to define and determine a German identity that would be the basis for a corresponding political structure. This movement inevitably got tied up in populist nationalism which was then hijacked by the Nazis who used it for propaganda. (It should also be noted that many of the intellectuals involved got sucked in by the Nazis to varying degrees, including Spengler). Spengler’s focus on identity and soul fits perfectly within this trend that was taking place in Germany. 

Running parallel with the tide of nationalism was the idea of a pan-European political entity. This notion had begun in earnest with Napoleon. It took varying forms but included most of the things that we’ve seen enacted in the post-war years such as customs unions, freedom of movement etc.

Thus, we can see that Spengler’s positing of a cultural “soul” fulfilled a need that had been created in Germany specifically but which was also relevant to the whole of the (continental) Faustian realm. His book fits better with the pan-European or pan-Faustian viewpoint and yet it has the distinctive style of German romanticism which, in my opinion, was born out of the political and cultural identity crisis that Germany had gone through in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Arnold Toynbee

This identity crisis was far more prevalent on the continent than in Britain, which was enjoying a long period of political stability as well as the economic benefits of a growing empire. And so it’s not a coincidence that we see an absence of the romantic concepts that Spengler uses in the work of his British contemporary, Arnold Toynbee.

Toynbee writes in the clear, concise prose of 19th century English scholarship. He is Darwin to Spengler’s Nietzsche. Like Darwin, Toynbee is methodical and thorough to the point of being boring and repetitive. Whereas Spengler focuses almost entirely on the Faustian-Classical-Magian axis with occasional references to the Chinese or Egyptians, Toynbee catalogues 21 civilisations and gives them all roughly equal attention (well, for the most part). In that way, he came closer than Spengler to Spengler’s own stated goal of achieving a Copernican revolution in historical scholarship that shifted the focus away from parochialism.

Perhaps most importantly for the terms of reference I have been using in this series, Toynbee is concerned with the exoteric while Spengler is concerned with the esoteric. He is the yang to Spengler’s yin.

Whereas Spengler ignores the obvious cases of cultural inheritance and sharing, Toynbee notes that there can be many different relations between cultures that are in close contact with each other including animosity, ignorance and appreciation. Conversely, Toynbee is embarrassingly shallow on esoteric questions which he either resolves down to a timid moral discussion or avoids them altogether and slips back into talking about mechanism. This distinction between the two historians fits with the other differences between Britain and Germany that had manifested in the 19th century.

Because of Britain’s political stability and economic growth, it was the natural home of the bourgeoisie whose primary preoccupation was comfort and materialism. Not without good reason, the bourgeoisie came to be associated with the term philistine, meaning a willful ignorance of the higher things in life combined with a petty moralising that is nothing more than a flimsy veneer for a stifling social conformity.

The bourgeoisie, for all its moralising, turned a blind eye to the poverty, crime, child labour, horrific workplace conditions and all the other very tangible and very obvious negative results of industrialisation that immiserated thousands if not millions of the working class. Hence, bourgeois philistinism came with a generous side order of hypocrisy and sanctimony.

19th Century London slum

The rise of the bourgeosie was correlated with the creation of mass movements which saw the homogenisation of society. The romantic movement was in large part a revolt against this process. Its focus on the individual came as a direct response to the fact that real individuality was disappearing.

It’s because the romantic movement was reactionary that it was primarily concerned with negative emotional traits and states of mind which captured the feelings of meaninglessness and despair that were prevalent in a society which had broken with tradition and seemed to lose its moorings. Spengler’s romantic pessimism places him firmly in this camp while Toynbee belonged to the British stiff upper lip stoicism which preferred to dissociate itself from real emotions and real moral questions altogether.

One thing they both agreed on was that the homogenisation of the populace into a single mass had happened before in the declining years of the Roman empire. Thus the 19th century can be seen as directly analogous to that period in Classical history. But the esoteric reactionary movement of the Romantics also had a parallel in the ancient world. In order to understand this, we must put on our Spenglerian glasses and look past the surface phenomena that might seem to contradict this reading.

Firstly, there is the question of slavery. The latter stages of the Roman empire saw a new kind of brutal slavery that was very different from the earlier forms. This large scale slavery caused the cities of the time to become slums as conditions for the poor worsened.

By contrast, the 19th century saw the abolition of slavery in 1833 in Britain and 1865 in the USA. We might, therefore, think that our age was more enlightened. However, as I have already alluded to, the conditions in the sweatshops and mines of the 19th century were horrendous and the streets of London were arguably not much better than the streets of Rome back in ancient times.  

If we look beneath the surface, what we find is that in both cases what was going on was the creation of the proletariat; a homogenous mass of workers and poor. That’s exactly what happened in the 19th century and Britain was the first to take this step.

The second important point is that, in ancient Rome, the formation of the proletariat was followed by an esoteric reaction in the form of Magian religion. This gave us the table we saw in the last post:

ClassicalExotericConsciousExtrovertPolisCitizen
MagianEsotericSubconsciousIntrovertChurchBeliever

Here, again, we must look beyond the surface phenomenon which tells us that the 19th century was different. The Magian religion which had been used to found modern Europe (Christianity) went into seemingly terminal decline. This appears to contradict a supposed correspondence with the ancient world.

However, the Magian was simply the form of the esoteric that arose in Roman times. To compare to our time, we need to look for any kind of esoteric activity in general and, when we do, we see that there was an explosion of the esoteric in the 19th century and that the romantic movement itself was a primary exemplar.

Thus, literature and the arts started to focus on subterranean themes and emotions. There was surge of popular interest in the occult. Interest in eastern religions grew with a particular focus on the esoteric practices of meditation and yoga. Perhaps most importantly, we see the birth of modern psychology at the end of the 19th century, an esoteric discipline that cloaked itself in the guise of modern science.

If we lump all these esoteric developments under the banner of Romanticism, we get the following table:-

BourgeoisieExotericConsciousExtrovertNation State, industrial capitalismBusinessman, worker, voter
RomanticsEsotericSub-consciousIntrovertArt, psychology, literature, occultIndividual

The bourgeoisie dominated in the Anglo countries through the influence of the British empire while the continent became the primary location for the romantic movement due to the thwarting of imperial ambition. While Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Holland had been off sailing the seven seas, the beginnings of the esoteric counterpoint naturally found expression in Germany which was a latecomer to the exoteric developments of the nation state, industrial economy and imperialism. There’s a reason why Mozart, Beethoven and Bach came from the German-speaking lands.

Thus, I finally have my answer to the question which prompted this series of posts: why was there an explosion of the Magian in the 19th century. But, actually, I was asking the wrong question. The real question is: why was there an explosion of the esoteric. The answer is because we are in that part of the cycle where the esoteric arises due to thwarted exoteric ambitions. The Magian was the Classical world’s esoteric turn in Roman times. It came right after the creation of the proletariat. The same process happened in the 19th century.

The esoteric explosion of the 19th century often took Magain form because the Faustian was built upon the Classical-Magian symbiosis. So, it makes sense that the modern Faustian would use the Magian for inspiration because it is the primarily reference point for the esoteric in our culture. Thus, much of the esoteric turn of the 19th century used Magian symbolism and theory as its guide.

However, there is a meta element to this. The esoteric is not just concerned with negative emotions and states of mind. It is also concerned with death. And it’s exactly the question of death that had arisen in the 19th century. But the form that question took was very different to the form it took back in the ancient world. Thus, the Magian turn in the 19th century was actually, to bastardise Spengler’s concept, a pseudomorphosis. Something was hiding beneath.

In the next post, we’ll explore that development in more detail and then we’ll be ready to wrap up this series by addressing whether Spengler’s predictions for the future are still valid or whether something else might be going on.

All posts in this series:-
Re-thinking Spengler Part 1: Morphological Thinking
Re-thinking Spengler Part 2: The Psychology of Pseudomorphosis
Re-thinking Spengler Part 3: The Problem of the Magian
Re-thinking Spengler Part 4: Bourgeoisie vs Romantics

Re-thinking Spengler Part 3: The Problem of the Magian

One of things in the study of history that our modern mindset chaffs against is the imprecision of it all. We want to do “science”. We want clean and firmly delineated categories that we can then use to test and map out relationships between the interacting components. We want a system, a machine.

As Spengler correctly points out, this is not possible when it comes to history. We can only look for patterns and those patterns will be more or less well-defined. I have mentioned before that I did my degree in linguistics and linguistics suffers from the same problem. It is clear that there is a deeper structure at play in language but that structure consistently eludes attempts to nail it down into a fixed system. Part of the reason for that is that the structure is in a constant process of becoming. Language is always changing. Even if you could systematise it for some period of time, it will soon have evolved to something new.

Modern scholarship in the life science and humanities with its physics envy avoids these problems by overlaying a veneer of rigor which simply isn’t there. We saw a great example of this during the last 3 years as virologists, with their preferred mathematical algorithms, analysed the genetic code of the sars-cov-2 virus and generated a stupefying number of sub-sub-sub-variants. Viruses provide perhaps the ultimate example of the categorisation problem involved in the life sciences since they are in a constant state of becoming (mutation) and so defy definition. The etymology of the word define is to finish, to conclude. But life never concludes. It rolls on leaving the scholar scratching his or her head.

As I mentioned in the last post, it is this problem of definitions which led me to go back and re-read Spengler recently with a particular focus on the definitions of the Magian and the Faustian cultures.

It is no coincidence that Spengler gives the most attention to the Faustian, the Classical and the Magian in Decline of the West since these are the three cultures that we have the most knowledge of due to the close historical relationship of the three. The distinction between the Classical and the Faustian is clear. Spengler refers to the Classical as day and the Faustian as night and they are in many respects inversions. The distinction between the Magian and the Faustian is far less clear. They share a number of important properties as we’ll see shortly.

One way I’ve been trying to make sense of the problem is to think about politics and culture as different things. Spengler uses a similar distinction between nobility and priesthood, which he assumes are united but also in conflict but I think politics and culture work better in modern terminology. We saw many examples of this conflict in the 20th century and preceding centuries.

Perhaps the ultimate example of the mismatch between politics and culture can be seen in practice of politicians drawing arbitrary borders on maps and calling them countries. (For those who haven’t seen it, there’s a great Laurie and Fry sketch satirising the drawing of maps at the Treaty of Westphalia.)

The business of elites drawing political maps that didn’t correspond to reality had been a problem in Europe for centuries but reached a peak at the time of the world wars. One of the reasons Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia was because there was a substantial German-speaking population there that he claimed he wanted to reunite with the fatherland. But most of central and eastern Europe at that time had minority populations that had been displaced by wars and other political happenings. Many of them ended up stateless and were thrown into internment camps while politicians figured out what to do with them.

The current war in Ukraine is partly about reuniting people who speak and think of themselves as Russian with the political entity known as Russia. With Taiwan, we have the reverse issue of a people who are culturally Chinese but don’t want to be reunited with the political entity known as China.

Such problems did not exist for the Classical culture. You belonged to a polis. A polis was a place with a fixed geographical position. The polis was the location of all politics and culture. Outside the polis was nothing. It was for this reason that ostracism (expulsion) was considered the worst punishment for Classical man, even worse than death. It was akin to being annihilated (literally, reduced to nothingness).

We might summarise the Classical as follows:

ClassicalExotericConsciousExtrovertPolisCitizen

With the pseudomorphosis of the Magian, we must add a new layer to the dynamic. The Magian grows up under the auspices of the Classical. A Christian in, let’s say, the second century AD who was a citizen of the Roman Empire was expected to follow the exoteric requirements of Rome. But they also had a separate set of beliefs that were esoteric and, from the point of view of official Roman life, subconscious. Thus, we can add the Magian to the table as follows:-

ClassicalExotericConsciousExtrovertPolisCitizen
MagianEsotericSubconsciousIntrovertChurchBeliever

Using the above-mentioned concepts of politics and culture, the Magian had become a sub-culture within the political structure of the Roman Empire. Over time, as the Classical culture atrophied, the Magian became the culture but this led to a split because now culture was separate or out of sync with politics.

Later on, as Spengler notes, the Magian culture (religion) managed to influence and change the exoteric political structure in subtle ways. Once this had happened, however, we must look beneath the surface to understand what is going on. Now we have a subconscious and introverted culture rising up from the shadows to affect the body politic. Therefore, with the appearance of the Magian we, as amateur historians, can no longer take things on face value. It is with the appearance of the Magian that Spengler’s kind of historical analysis becomes valid.

Thus, the Classical is a problem for Spenglerian analysis because it seemingly has no hidden parts. Spengler admits that there is no evidence for a priestly or religious basis for the Classical. He simply asserts that it must be there because that’s what his model requires.

Eventually, of course, the Roman Empire faded away. What lived on, however, was the combination of the Classical and the Magian preserved by the scholars of the time who were almost universally monks and hermits who lived in monasteries scattered throughout Europe and the east including as far afield as the western shores of Ireland. It was these religious people who fostered what is sometimes called medieval philosophy which combined study of the Classical philosophy, mostly Plato and Aristotle, with Christianity. There was also significant influence from Islamic and Jewish scholarship.

All this wasn’t just random, of course. Christianity had become the state religion under Constantine and the spread of Christianity happened in areas under Roman influence. When Charlemagne ascended to power, it was to these religious institutions he turned to guide the development of what became Faustian culture. Christianity was fundamental to this development. Charlemagne and later rulers forced the remaining pagan tribes of Europe to convert to Christianity either voluntarily or at the point of a sword.

In this way, the Classical-Magian symbiosis became the basis for the Faustian. We could map it out this way:-

FaustianExotericConsciousExtrovertFiefVassal or Peasant
FaustianEsotericSubconsciousIntrovertChurchBeliever

But this diagram is perhaps more accurate of what happened later when one’s religion became a personal matter that was separate from one’s political identity (again, a separation of politics and culture).

In the early years of the Faustian, the Church was arguably the main organising force in society. That is certainly what is implied by the Crusades which were initiated by the Pope. The crusaders primarily saw themselves as Christians fighting a holy war. In fact, the structure of the Christian realm of Europe at that time looked an awful like the structure of the Islamic caliphate that it was fighting against. The early Faustian mirrored the Magian in that religion had now become the exoteric political structure in the form of the caliphate.

Spengler acknowledges these developments a few times in his book but de-emphasises them because he is trying to get away from the linear version of history that they imply. For example, he says of the Faustian:

“He required a past in order to find meaning and depth in the present. On the spiritual side the past which presented itself to him was ancient Israel, on the mundane it was ancient Rome, whose relics he saw all about him.”

Is this true? Did Faustian man “require” a past or was he simply making use of what was there? The Islamic caliphate paradigm was not just there, it was dominant. It had conquered the Visigoths in Spain and was threatening the rest of Europe. The unification of Europe into what was basically a Christian caliphate makes sense as a political response in much the same way that Russia and China are currently trying to compete with western political hegemony by creating economic networks (belt and road) and establishing rival financial systems.

This would help to explain one of the ambiguities about the early Faustian that Spengler left unanswered: the question of Magian-Classical influence.

If the Magian arose in pseudomorphosis, unwillingly and resentfully dominated by the Classical, what do we call the Faustian’s willing embrace of the Magian-Classical. It could be a “love of the past” as Spengler asserts or it could have been political-military pressure and mimicry. Spengler appeals to the “Faustian soul” while the latter explanation applies an evolutionary understanding of history. New evolutionary paradigms which are advantageous to the organism (society) will spread and propagate. The caliphate model was adopted because it had been proven to work. The success of that approach can perhaps best be seen in the fact that Christians recaptured Spain in the late 13th century, coincidentally at just the time when the crusades ended.

It also seems to me that the relationship of the Faustian to the Magian doesn’t make sense within Spengler’s framework.

There are 3 different relationships of the Magian to the Faustian. The Muslim was the enemy in a political and military sense. The Christian had been adopted willingly as an organising principle of society. And the Jewish had become the Other. If the Muslim, Christian and Jewish are all, at base, Magian, how can it be that the early Faustians should have such different relationships with all three?

But it’s more complicated than that and the issue of the Jews can help us to see why. One way to explain this while also giving an insight into the mindset of the early Faustians is through the story of Peter the Hermit, one of the first crusaders.

Peter the Hermit on a recruitment drive

Prior to the crusade, Peter had gone on a pilgrimage to the holy land but he only began his preaching career once Pope Urban II announced the crusade. Apparently Peter was good at his job. He assembled no less than 40,000 crusaders in Cologne, most of whom were apparently peasants. But, before leaving for the crusade, Peter came to be a leader in what later was called the Rhineland Massacres which might have been the first pogroms against the Jews driven by mob psychology.

Within Spengler’s framework, this would be a signal for a pseudomorphosis. The Jews were the older civilisation and were in a position of some power being traders and financiers. The hatred towards them from the nascent Faustians would make sense. But, again, how can we square that with the fact that the Faustians had embraced Christianity? That would mean they both hated the Magian and worshipped the Magian at the same time.

Of course, the crusading mobs were barely Christianised at all. They’d certainly skipped the parts of the scriptures about loving thine enemy. Peter the Hermit and other mob leaders were interested primarily in the creation of the Other and the Jews filled that role from the Christian point of view in exactly the same way that we see in the other Magian religions: Jew/Gentile, Muslim/Infidel, Christian/Heathen.

The crusading mobs had an obvious target in the Jews. The people knew enough about their new religion to know who had killed Jesus. However, there was also a significant financial element to the violence. Many crusaders financed their expedition by buying supplies and borrowing money from Jewish traders.  The pogroms were certainly partly motivated by a desire to get out of debt. This reading is enhanced by the fact that Peter the Hermit and his merry band would later set fire to Belgrade on the way to the holy land, killing 4,000 people and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down.

Of crucial importance is the fact that all this lawless violence, including against the Jews, was forbidden by both church and feudal leaders and this gives us an insight into how tenuous was the grip on power of the elites of that time because the mobs were not afraid to disobey. In one case, the Bishop of Worms had tried to hide a group of Jews who were escaping from the mob but the mob broke into the church and slaughtered them on the spot (if this sounds like an early version of Schindler’s List, it’s because it was).

Officially, the Jews were afforded a status in the Christian lands that was almost identical to that given to Christians and Jews by regions under Islamic rule. That is, they had a subordinate but protected status. Thus, we see a clear difference in attitude between the nobility/priesthood and the average person.

But it was more than a difference of attitude. It is just a simple fact of history that the Jews became financiers to the European elites, most notably in times of war. Jewish negotiators were also used to nut out the details of peace treaties following the wars where they played the role objective observers who were also able to facilitate the financial transactions once the deal was done. This dynamic lasted all the way up until the Franco-Prussian war. The Treaty of Versailles was the first not negotiated by Jewish intermediaries (and if you look at the quality of that treaty, you might conclude that it would have been better to have enlisted Jewish help on that one too).

What all this looks like to me is the elites of the nascent Faustian adopting the means necessary to build a society. Let’s be honest, the Europeans of the time were barbarians. Peter the Hermit was not unique. The Jews were not just traders and financiers but also played an important role in the scholarship of medieval period. Meanwhile, the Islamic countries were way ahead economically, militarily and culturally. Thus, the adoption of the Magian-Classical paradigm at the start of the Faustian made sense on purely pragmatic grounds.

Spengler notes that the Faustian culture has always been ruled by elites but those elites did not come out of nowhere. They formed themselves around the Magian-Classical paradigm. The knowledge of the Classical and the Magian was revered because it really was the cutting edge knowledge of the time. If there was a real Faustian then it too must have bubbled up from the common folk. But if that’s true then I fail to see why this isn’t a pseudomorphosis exactly as Spengler describes it. The difference would be that the Faustian elites themselves were the ones preventing the emergence of the new culture by clinging to the Magian-Classical paradigm that was the basis of their power.

But maybe there was no pseudomorphosis. Maybe it’s all just mob psychology, the resentment of the poor against the rich, the weak against the powerful. If that’s true, then a linear explanation appealing to general evolutionary and psychological principles works better.

This wouldn’t negate Spengler’s cyclical view of history or even his idea of a “Faustian soul”. On the contrary, the appearance of a linear progression through evolutionary history is facilitated by the lifecycles of the individual organisms who participate in the process. The question here may be a theological one: is there an immutable (cultural) “soul”?

In the next post, we’ll use these concepts to look at the developments that happened in the 19th and 20th century that originally got me thinking about all this. There really does seem to have been an explosion of the Magian at that time and next week we’ll try to unpack it and find out why.

All posts in this series:-
Re-thinking Spengler Part 1: Morphological Thinking
Re-thinking Spengler Part 2: The Psychology of Pseudomorphosis
Re-thinking Spengler Part 3: The Problem of the Magian
Re-thinking Spengler Part 4: Bourgeoisie vs Romantics

Re-thinking Spengler Part 2: The Psychology of Pseudomorphosis

I said at the end of the last post that I was going to talk about Hyper Masculinity this week. However, I’ve decided to push that topic back to later on. So, in this post I want to talk about the not necessarily unrelated topic of psychology.

Spengler devotes a section of the first book of Decline of the West to a critique of psychology on the grounds that it falls into the same error as modern history by applying cause-and-effect analysis to a domain where it does not belong. That criticism is valid. Psychology and history belong to the group of disciplines that should be doing morphological analysis based on pattern, form and the other elements on the right-hand side of the table we looked in the last post.

Curiously, Spengler also criticises the modern psychological distinction between conscious and unconscious on the basis that it invokes a spatial metaphor. This is a strange thing to complain about since Spengler grounds his own concept of pseudomorphosis in a spatial-geological metaphor.

You get the feeling that Spengler simply has something against psychology and this is all the weirder since the entire basis of his analysis is, in my opinion, predicated on the concept of the Unconscious. Indeed, it might not be an exaggeration to say that Faustian culture is the culture of the Unconscious, as we will see later.

It’s noteworthy, and just a little bit synchronous, that Spengler had finished writing the first book of Decline of the West in 1914, just one year after Jung’s famous break with Freud and at the same time when Jung began to have the psychological experiences that he describes in The Red Book. Those experiences changed his life and his attitude to psychology. From that time on, Jung pursued exactly the kind of psychology that Spengler would have approved of (with reservations) and this led Jung to the very Spenglerian idea of the archetypes.  

Jung would later write one of his better known books “Modern man in search of a soul”. But the whole concept of “soul” is central to Spengler. Spengler’s analysis is predicated on discovering the Faustian “soul”. Jung identified the soul as belonging to the Unconscious, although capable of integration into consciousness. Meanwhile, Spengler seems to suggest that the task of Faustian culture, the collective “soul”, was also to finally become self-aware. Thus, the tasks the two men set for their respective fields was very similar.

All this makes Spengler’s rejection of the Unconscious more mysterious. He clearly sees Faustian culture as being concerned with that which lies beneath.

“To battle against the comfortable foregrounds of life, against the impressions of the moment, against what is near, tangible and easy, to win through to that which has generality and duration and links past and future – these are the sum of all Faustian imperatives…”

This could serve as an exact description of Jung’s psychology of the Unconscious. It is difficult and most people will try to avoid it. But it aims to see beyond the cognitive impressions of the day and link modern psychology back to its history. In doing so, it aims to find the parts of the psyche that have duration. In other words, it’s very Faustian.

If Faustian culture is primarily concerned with the depths, it is almost certainly because that culture has been lurking away somewhere beneath the surface from the very beginning. This is a point that Spengler makes time and again in his book and the easiest way to understand it is to compare the Faustian against the Classical culture because the two are, in many ways, antithetical.

The Classical is perhaps the ultimate example of an exoteric, extroverted culture. Everything that we think of as Classical culture happened out in the open. That culture was centred around the polis. Whatever happened outside the polis was simply irrelevant. This included all the activities that were tied up with existence such as growing and preparing food, making clothes, tending the house etc. The Classical man had a contempt for work and not having to work to support yourself was a basic criterion for membership of the polis.  

This latter fact is why slaves, women and children were excluded from the polis and, by extension, the culture. They were relegated to the household and the household was the economy (the word economy comes from Greek oikos, meaning “house”). Our obsession with the economy is the opposite of the Classical mindset.

The Greek psychology was a tripartite distinction between God – animal – plant. But the latter two were synonymous with the economy and were explicitly excluded from both psychology and politics. It was only the godlike in man that could take part in the polis. Man was godlike to the extent that he had disconnected himself from the activities required for basic subsistence.

Viewed from the frame of modern psychology, the Unconscious did not exist for the Greeks and Romans. What we have in the Classical culture is the purest form of the exoteric at the macrocosmic (political) level and the purest form of the conscious at the microcosmic (psychological). There were no priests, no experts, no middlemen, no psychoanalysts, no deep state or anything of the sort in Classical culture. Everything was right out in the open.

Et tu, Brute?

Julius Caesar was knifed on the steps of the Senate in full view of everybody. There was no mystery about who killed him or why. Compare that with the assassination of JFK, where decades later documents are still being released (how very Faustian) and conspiracy theories stoked.

Compared against the Classical, both the Magian and then the Faustian cultures introduced the esoteric, the occult and the unconscious into the equation. Note that this happened at both the microcosmic and the macrocosmic levels. The various religious communities of the Magian grew up underneath the political structure of the Classical. Spengler called this a pseudomorphosis. In his analysis, the Magian was a brand new culture that was trying to emerge but was stifled by being made to conform to the exoteric forms of the Classical.

But just as there was a congruence between the political and the psychological in the Classical societies, we can also see that the pseudomorphosis gives rise to its own psychology. This is something that Spengler seems to have missed, which is strange because he was clearly an admirer of Nietzsche and Nietzsche devoted an entire book (The Antichrist) to the subject.

To translate Nietzsche’s argument into Spenglerian terms: it was because the Magian could not find exoteric expression that it became esoteric. A community which could not have politicians and citizens would have priests and a consenus of the faithful instead. What emerges is a dual society and a dual psychology with the Classical taking its familiar role as the exoteric and the Magian becoming the esoteric. You give unto Caesar what is his while keeping your real beliefs to yourself.

Viewed psychologically, this amounts to the emergence of the Unconscious. In the pure world of the Classical, there is no difference between believing and doing. But when the Magian cultures got stuck in a pseudomorphosis, they had to separate their culture from the dominant culture. When the persecution of the Christians started, many decided it was easier to renounce the faith. Others chose to become martyrs. Once the Magian found an esoteric toehold, it created a society which needed to be deciphered. The exterior form could no longer be taken at face value. One had to look beneath to understand what was really going on.

Nietzsche wrote the whole thing off as an example of slave morality compared to the master morality of Rome. This was consonant with the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian sentiment that became popular in the 19th century. But it also followed a pattern whose history goes right back to the start of the Faustian. Spengler talks about this dynamic numerous times. It’s the Faustian obsession with the Classical.

Consider that, even to this day, much of our technical language of law, science and medicine is derived from Latin and Greek. We might write this up to simple pragmatism. After all, the texts that formed the early Faustian culture were written in Latin for the most part. But, even if it was just pragmatism, it still created a dynamic where the Classical culture came to constitute the exoteric form of the Faustian. The Renaissance was just an especially enthusiastic episode in the ongoing attraction of the Classical for Faustian culture.

Classical architecture has had numerous “revivals” including in the 18th century.

It is strange that Spengler never tries to explain the worship of the Classical in general terms even though he refers to it countless times throughout the book. The reason could be because it causes problem for his analysis.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Faustian culture was in a dual pseudomorphosis. There was a Magian pseudomorphosis in the religious sphere and a Classical pseudomorphosis in the intellectual, legal and political sphere. Technically, this explanation doesn’t work because a pseudomorphosis requires a dominant culture and neither the Magian nor the Classical were politically dominant in Europe at the time of the birth of the Faustian. Rather, it seems that the Faustian willingly incorporated the Classical and the Magian.

Things get more complicated when we consider that, by Spengler’s own analysis, the Magian religion had taken over the Classical in its civilisational phase. The Classical was still exoterically present while the Magian was esoterically or spiritually dominant.

Thus, there is an obvious linear explanation. First, there was the Classical culture as purely exoteric. The Magian came along and added the esoteric/unconscious. When Faustian culture began, it took both of these as its starting point. This idea of a linear progression, ancient – medieval – modern, is exactly what Spengler is arguing against in his book. He argues in favour of a cyclical pattern based on biology where a culture is born, rises to its peak and then dies.

Whether the linear or the cyclical explanation is ultimately true, it is just a fact that with both the Magian and then the Faustian cultures we must posit a deeper reality behind appearance. It’s because the Faustian borrowed so explicitly from the Magian and the Classical that the real Faustian can only be found beneath the surface. Spengler repeatedly insists that we must ignore the exoteric appearance of Faustian society (Magian in religion, Classical in intellect) and look beneath. He uses the word “soul” to refer to this but if we translate it into Jungian terms it is nothing more or less than the Unconscious.

The result is that Faustian culture has always, to use a Nietzschean phrase, worn a mask. We have worn the Magian mask in religion and we have worn the Classical mask in the intellectual sphere. To understand Faustian culture, is to learn to look beneath the mask, to disregard the exoteric and the conscious and to get down into the esoteric and the unconscious.

And herein lies a fascinating possibility. What if the 19th century is the age in which Faustian culture finally throws off the dual pseudomorphosis and learns to see itself for the first time. Can it be a coincidence that just at this time Jung and Spengler were working on very similar ideas? The other cultural trends of the time seem to fit too. We see the Christian church (the Magian pseudomorphosis) become all but irrelevant to the general culture while the Classical has almost disappeared from architecture.

Hyper-masculine phallic symbol?

What if in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche we see the true Faustian philosophy; in Jung, the true Faustian psychology; in Spengler, the true Faustian history; quantum mechanics is the true Faustian physics; electronic fiat currency (and possibly Bitcoin!) is the true Faustian currency. Planes, trains and automobiles are the true Faustian transport etc etc.

If this sounds fanciful, we have to bear in mind another assumption of Spengler’s and this is another point where comparison to the Classical can help us understand a key point about our own culture.

In the Classical polis, everybody was an equal. The polis was not a universal institution (slaves and women were excluded). But once you were in the polis, you were equal to everybody else. Nothing could have been more absurd in the Classical world than the idea of “trusting the experts”. There was no hidden knowledge, and even if there was, it was worthless and even dangerous, something to be fought against. In the Classical, a man was synonymous with his deeds and his words. Russell Crowe’s line in the movie Gladiator captures the ethic perfectly: “what we do in this life echoes in eternity.”

By contrast, Faustian culture (the real Faustian culture, not the exoteric form of the culture) has from the start been limited to the elites. Spengler is quite open and, from a modern point of view, derogatory about this. For him, only a small number of people have ever been real players in Faustian culture. Nevertheless, as we saw in the last 3 years, the vast majority of people agree with the him. The general public believes that we must trust the experts. The assumption of the culture is that there is a small number of people who know what’s really going on and our job is to do what they say.

This has been the (unspoken) conviction right from the start of the Faustian. There are deeper “truths” that only a select few can know. Trusting the experts is a peculiarly Faustian quality. The Classical would have rejected it outright and for the Magian there needed to be general consensus through understanding.

Thus, if the Faustian really is the culture of the elites, it does look like something big happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries because this was the golden age of the genius. Just think of names like Nietzsche, Boltzmann, Einstein, Faraday, Rutherford, Darwin, Bohr, Pasteur, Gödel. The list could go on and on. Has there been even one person in the post war years to compare against these giants? Similarly, has there been a single scientific breakthrough in the post war years to match those of the 19th and early 20th centuries? I can’t think of any.

Spengler hypothesised that, in the years prior to the war, there was a great battle going on between money and intellect. This battle had its roots in the original grand cosmic contest which begins every culture and that is the contest between nobility and priesthood. Well, we now know who won: money. Money destroyed intellect (although it could very well be argued that the intellect destroyed itself. How many 19th C geniuses were half insane?). The corona debacle is the clearest possible indication of how decisive that victory was. There appears to no longer be a single institution of society which has not been corrupted by money, including and especially “science”.

The post war period has only been held together by the domination of money which is why for decades the only thing we ever heard about in the media was the GDP or the inflation rate or the unemployment figures. Given the current state of money, it may very well be that its dominance too is coming to an end. What should happen next according to Spengler is the arrival of the Caesars and the Second Religiosity. And, yet, this is the one prediction in the book that Spengler seemed to get wrong. The question is: did he just get the timing wrong or is something more fundamental at work? We’ll return to that question in the last post of the series.

All posts in this series:-
Re-thinking Spengler Part 1: Morphological Thinking
Re-thinking Spengler Part 2: The Psychology of Pseudomorphosis
Re-thinking Spengler Part 3: The Problem of the Magian
Re-thinking Spengler Part 4: Bourgeoisie vs Romantics

Re-thinking Spengler Part 1: Morphological Thinking

It must be more than ten years since I first read Spengler’s The Decline of the West. My recollection was that I found it a little tedious and that I skimmed through some parts while broadly agreeing with the ideas for which the book is most famous, almost all of which are, as the title of the book suggests, critiques of the current state of western society and culture. Most of those critiques have only become more perspicacious in recent times.

At the end of last year, I realised I needed to read Spengler again, mostly to work through a hypothesis that occurred to me while writing my Unconscious Empire series, which was that the modern West has been undergoing what seemed to me like a Magian pseudomorphosis. This idea contradicts one of the key components of Spengler’s own analysis which is that what is really going on in the West is that we are entering the Civilisation phase of the cycle, the final transformation before “death”. 

So, I used the Christmas break to re-read Spengler and in this series of posts I want to address some of the major themes that occurred to me, including the idea that we are in a Magian pseudomorphosis (spoiler alert: it’s complicated). By coincidence, 2023 is also the 100-year anniversary of the publication of the combined edition of The Decline of the West (originally published in 1923). So, what better time to re-evaluate one of the great works of historical analysis.

From a personal point of view, the big change in mindset I have gone through since first reading the book is exactly the one which Spengler describes in the introduction and which forms the core of his critique of modern history as a discipline and the new method of history which he proposes. I have been calling this mindset symbolic or archetypal thinking but Spengler refers to it as morphological analysis. We can distinguish this approach from the default mindset of our culture known to all and sundry as simply “science”. Science looks for cause-and-effect relationships while the morphological approach looks for structure and pattern.

Long-term readers of the blog would know that it was corona which really got me into archetypal-thinking especially through the works of Carl Jung and then Jean Gebser. So, in this sense, reading Spengler for the second time has been far more intense and also far more rewarding as I’ve been able to compare the paradigm I have been using against Spengler’s. I now have a far more precise picture of where I agree and disagree with Spengler and I’ll be sketching that out in later posts.

In any case, the tools of the job are the same whether you’re doing Spenglerian, Gebserian or Jungian analysis. We summarise them as follows using Spengler’s vocabulary:-

ScienceMorphological Analysis
World-as-NatureWorld-as-History
Cause and EffectForm/pattern, Morphological Analysis, Archetypes (Urphänomene)
Logic/CognitionIntuition, Comparison, Empathy, Instinct
Space, Matter, LifeTime, Destiny, Death
“Hard Science”“Humanities” (“soft science”)
Pretty much everybody elseGoethe, Spengler, Gebser, Jung, Nietzsche (sort of), Gregory Bateson, Systems Thinking (esp. Weinberg)

When Spengler criticises the historians of his time (as well as the psychologists) he is accusing them of the category error of applying the methods of the hard sciences where they don’t belong. Corona provided us with a perfect example of this exact error and so we can use it as a way to elucidate the distinction between the two ways of thinking.

It is the Destiny of all living things to die. The pattern, or morphology, that this takes for a person is so obvious that we never need to spell it out. But let’s do so here for the sake of argument: you’re born, you come of age, go through middle age into old age and eventually die. That is the archetypal pattern in a stable society, although obviously death can come earlier for a variety of reasons. This pattern or archetypal way of thinking about death leads us to statements of the obvious like the older you get, the more likely you are to die. Nevertheless, over the last 3 years, such statements of the obvious were completely disregarded in favour of “science”.

Science wants to know about causes and so the cause of death becomes the primary bit of information. But what is the meaning of cause of death when the person dying has 5 co-morbidities and is 85 years old? According to the “science” way of thinking, the cause is all important. Somebody was alive, caught a cold and then died. Ergo, the cold is the cause of death. According to the morphological way of thinking, the cold is irrelevant. The person is at the end of their archetypal life-journey and something is going to do them in. If it’s not a cold, it will be something else.

In a world where causal, “scientific” thinking dominates while archetypal or morphological thinking is no longer acceptable, these most basic facts of life and death are ignored. That’s what we saw during corona. Ironically, even the broader facts of “science” have become irrelevant.

Consider this. Over the past 3 years, the median age for somebody in Australia to die “with covid” is about 3 years older than the median from all causes. In other words, on average the people dying with a positive covid test are older than those dying without one. Taking this statistic at face value, we should all want to get covid. We’ll live longer.

How did we end up in a society which commits such basic errors of understanding? The answer to this question can be found in another question: why did morphological or archetypal thinking become verboten in the West? The answer lies with WW2 and is therefore tied up in the Hitler Complex I wrote about last year.

It was the German-speaking countries that were at the forefront of the morphological approach and Spengler is a prime exponent. That approach had roots in German romanticism and it was the language of German romanticism that the Nazis used for their propaganda. Concepts like destiny, race and fatherlands, all discussed in intricate technical detail by Spengler, were used as propaganda by the Nazis. To this day, anybody who gets themselves into the public sphere and so much as hints at these kinds of ideas can count on being smeared with those most terrible of labels “far right” or “fascist”.

Thus, even Spengler, who called the Nazis “idiotic” and foresaw that they would bring disaster to Germany, got tainted by association. So did Nietzsche. Jung was pushed aside for Freud (who was in the “hard science” camp) while Gebser and his milieu were merely forgotten about in the chaos. The result is that we now live in a culture that is in active denial of almost all the elements in the right-hand column of the table above and this denial is present not just in the general culture but even more in academia and among the “elites”.

Of course, we should acknowledge that the thinkers referred to above really did get caught up in German romanticism. Even Spengler, with his hard-nosed scepticism, cannot help but declare his new method to be the last great historical task of Faustian civilisation before it dies a heroic death at the hands of fate. He also projects the archetypal romantic concept of the misunderstood genius onto the “Faustian soul”. Nobody in the future will understand us Faustians. That is the cross we must bear.

In fairness, Spengler would not shy away from this judgement. He assumes that all “real cultures” are not understandable by other cultures and his invocation of a prime Faustian archetype is not a problem within his framework. Maybe he’s right. But the sceptic in me can’t help but be wary whenever the language of romanticism creeps into a scholarly work.

Unfortunately for Spengler, it is the same language that Hitler would later use and so the challenge can be levelled against Spengler that Dostoevsky, through the character of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, makes against the whole romantic movement; namely, that when a scholar’s words are put into action by a lowly scoundrel like Smerdyakov (who is not at all dissimilar to Hitler) and horrific outcomes ensue, to what extent is the scholar responsible? Looking at the last years of Spengler’s life, I wonder if that thought didn’t cross is mind as he watched the Nazis rise to power. (Spengler died of a heart attack in 1936).

A hundred years later, with a fuller understanding of what happened next and watching the current madness of our own time, I think we should be able to see that Spengler, Nietzsche, Jung and Gebser really were on to something and that what they were onto might be just what we need. Certainly now would be a good time to do that since our society seems to be descending into a similar kind of madness to the Germans of the early 20th century. If the Germans were obsessed with the right hand side of the table, we have arrived at blind worship of the left. Either way, we’re massively out of balance.

To finish, let’s apply the distinction between science and morphological analysis to elucidate the problem of corona and pandemics in general.

There are 3 different disciplines involved in the analysis of a pandemic: virology, epidemiology and medicine.

Virology, in theory, belongs in the “science” camp. I say in theory because science is all about cause-and-effect and the cause-and-effect relationship between a virus and a purported disease has only ever been weakly shown. If we believe the latest research, there is no necessary cause-and-effect relationship between being “infected” and getting sick. At best, it is nothing more than a probability distribution and that probability distribution changes over time both for the individual and the population. Think of it like a game of poker only the cards you hold in your hand are constantly changing so that you never really know with any certainty what the probabilities are.

Interestingly, this was an issue that Spengler noted was creeping into science even during his time. He talks in his book about how the “hard” sciences were becoming more probabilistic. That’s even more true of virology. We really are scraping the bottom of the cause-and-effect barrel.

Medicine is another discipline that would claim to be in the “hard science” camp and yet, especially in relation to nursing and personal patient-doctor relationships, it has always had a strong humanitarian bent. Nevertheless, our technocrat overlords are doing their level best to remove all humanity from medicine and reduce everything to tests and pharmaceutical interventions. Even if they succeed (and God help us if they do), medicine inevitably deals with the human body, one of the most complex systems in existence, and any pretense of “hard science” is just that, pretense.

With epidemiology, things are much clearer. It is definitely not a hard science as it does not deal in cause-and-effect but simply looks for patterns of disease and death. Thus, it falls into the morphological analysis category. Epidemiology is completely reliant on virology to provide it with accurate infection statistics and medicine to provide it with accurate disease and death statistics. If these statistics are wrong or noisy, any patterns that epidemiology finds will be meaningless.

With these considerations in mind, here is how our general culture/official narrative would categorise the 3 disciplines involved in viral disease:-

Hard ScienceSoft Science
VirologyEpidemiology
Medicine 

Personally, I would draw it like this:-

Hard ScienceSoft Science
 Virology
 Epidemiology
 Medicine

What this means is the viral disease and pandemics are to be understood using the elements in the right-hand side of our table.

Viral disease and pandemics are a function of Time and Destiny. Any individual’s likelihood of dying from all causes, including respiratory viruses, increases as they get older and/or as their general health deteriorates. All of the copious data collected during corona has done nothing more than affirm these simple statements. The people dying were the elderly and those who were already in poor health. These results are exactly what we would expect from basic intuition and all the data in the world hasn’t added anything to this basic understanding.

What all this amounts to, of course, is common sense. And here we have an important point which Spengler would probably disagree with but which seems true to me. Morphological thinking is founded in our basic intuitions about the world including common sense but also empathy and compassion. All the so-called compassion we have seen during corona has been completely fake. In truth, genuine empathy and compassion has been missing in action.

This is not surprising when we go back to our table and realise that the right-hand column, which includes the concept of empathy, has been systematically removed from our culture. The post-war loss of the humanities and the blind worship of “science” has had the effect of creating the society around us which is more and more lacking in basic empathy and compassion. Hence, the people who wish death on the unvaccinated. Hence, the people who wish death on those who follow a different political party or any of the other craziness we see on an almost daily basis. It’s actually the quite logical outcome of having erased an entire mindset of understanding from the culture.

And so here is another reason to rescue the lessons that Spengler, Jung and Gebser have to teach us: so that we can reconnect with empathy and compassion. This is also why it’s so important to see beyond the language of German romanticism because that language was explicitly masculine with a grandiosity that made it so easy to apply to military adventurism.

The irony is that two of the prime exponents of that language style, Spengler and Nietzsche, were not especially masculine men. They were both sickly recluses, unmarried, living alone on small pensions. Both died young in their mid-50s. In addition, they had both clearly cultivated the (feminine) trait of empathy to an extremely high degree. That is a mandatory requirement to do morphological/archetypal analysis.

Were they simply compensating for lives devoid of what we might call everyday masculinity? Was that what was behind the grandiose, heroic language? Maybe. But it’s also true that both men, and Jung too to a lesser degree, were following the archetypal Faustian man which includes Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and, of course, Faust. It’s what I like to call the Hyper-Masculine. In the next post, we’ll unpack it in more detail.

The Unconscious Empire Final: Benevolent Totalitarianism

In the last post, I made the claim that the anti-Semitism in 19th century continental Europe was driven by a psychological complex, a tangled web of mental trauma that had ultimately been set in motion by the fact that Europeans had begun to turn into the Other which for centuries had been embodied in the archetype of “the Jew”. These days, we are familiar with this psychology through the cliched example which has been used numerous times in film: the man who is homosexual but due to deep shame around the issue caused by his upbringing not only can’t express his homosexuality but puts on a façade of extreme anti-gay bigotry. This is the closet homosexual; the man who cannot admit he is gay just like 19th century Germans could not admit that, in the words of Karl Marx, they had “become Jewish”.

If we follow the same pattern, we can hypothesise that the exact same psychology sits behind the modern West’s Hitler Complex. That is, our obsession with denouncing Hitler and anybody who we suspect of remotely being like Hitler is a cover for the fact that we are becoming like Hitler. On the face of it, this is a ridiculous claim. There are no concentration camps (sort of), no bloody wars (sort of) and no uniforms and silly social rituals (sort of).

When Marx claimed the Christians were becoming Jews, he didn’t mean they were converting to Judaism or practicing the rituals or social customs of the Jews. He meant, they were taking on the underlying function formerly held by the Jews; what I would call the archetype. And that’s exactly what the modern West is doing. We are taking on the archetype, the underlying form, and the archetype in this case is the political system known as totalitarianism.

Hannah Arendt has provided us with the most comprehensive account of totalitarianism in her book aptly titled The Origins of Totalitarianism. There is a key point she made in that book which relates to our Hitler Complex. The implication of the Hitler Complex is that totalitarianism can only arise in the form of an evil tyrant. That is not true. As Arendt brilliantly observed, totalitarianism is a new form of political system, one that does not require a leader at all. The fact that the two men who ushered in totalitarianism, Hitler and Stalin, were both evil tyrants is merely a historical accident.  

What’s more, the socio-cultural conditions for totalitarianism were present before Hitler and Stalin could do what they did. Those conditions were not unique to Germany and Russia. They were shared by all modern nations and were brought into being mostly by the industrial revolution and certain ideologies of the 19th century. Thus, there never was any reason to believe that totalitarianism would die out with Hitler and Stalin. Arendt warned of exactly that potential in her book written in the 1950s. Sadly, her warnings have come true. The West has become totalitarian all while shrieking ever louder about Hitler and “Nazis”. That shrieking exists to hide what is really going on.

Because it does not have strong man leaders and because it claims to be a force for good, I call the form that our political system has evolved towards Benevolent Totalitarianism and I’ll explain how it works in this post.

Anything is possible through organisation

The core tenet of totalitarianism is that anything is possible through organisation. Note that this is distinct from the moral issue explored by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov that anything is permissible. It’s also different from the idea that God works in mysterious ways, as in, if we organise correctly we will get lucky. There is no luck in totalitarianism. The whole concept is predicated on the removal of luck, randomness and spontaneity of any kind.

Totalitarianism states that anything is possible if only humans can organise themselves in accordance with the laws of nature (or history). For the Nazis, these “laws” were the supposed laws of racial science. For the Soviets, they were laws of history as elaborated in dialectical materialism. Of course, nowadays we write Hitler off as a mad racist. But it’s a historical fact that almost every educated person of that time would have believed the basic precepts of racial theory just like every educated person of our time believes in the precepts of what I like to call naïve germ theory. (I predict that naïve germ theory will have as much credibility in 50 years as racial theory has today).

Herein lies the first problem of totalitarianism: how do you know you have discovered a “law” of nature? These “laws of nature” are what modern science claims to uncover and thus totalitarianism has always been tied up with “science” although we really should call it scientism for it is at base nothing more than ideology. What complicates the matter substantially, however, is that the kind of “science” we are talking about here was widely regarded as not just true but cutting edge in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Let’s take the most famous example: the law of natural selection.

No empirical research can disprove the law of natural selection. There is random variation in species. That variation will either persist or will die out. If it persists, it is fit. If it dies out, it is unfit. There are no other alternatives. If a variation persisted for a while and then died out, that just meant the environment changed so that it no longer fitted. You can go out into the jungle and find the most seemingly useless adaptation, one that seems actively harmful to the organism which has it, that finding or any other one like it does not and can not disprove the law of natural selection.

(Yes, I’m aware that there are those who claim that natural selection is testable and empirically falsifiable. Even if that is technically true, which I doubt, the main point here is how such “laws” are viewed in the general culture and how totalitarianism as a political system makes use of them. Whether Darwin wanted it or not, Darwinism became tied up with politics right from the start).

Totalitarianism takes such “laws” of science and rearranges society according to them. In the Nazi racial ideology, if the Jews could be eliminated, that proved they were unfit. The same goes for every other race, including “the Germans”. From the Nazi point of view, if “the Germans” lost the war, that was simply evidence that they were not up to the task of becoming the master race. Only the strongest survive. If the Germans did not survive, then they were not the strongest. This tautological aspect is a key attribute of totalitarian ideology. It’s like a logical straightjacket that you can’t get out of.

The correlation of Nazism with pan-German nationalism misses the central point of Nazi ideology and was a big part of the reason why outsiders did not comprehend either Hitler or Nazism in the 1930s and why we still don’t understand to this day. The Nazis used the pan-German nationalist movement, which had been around for decades prior, to get themselves into power. Once that was achieved, they were able to govern according to ideology. That ideology had nothing to do with nationalism. It was a racial ideology and “the Germans” were just as dispensable as any other “race”.

This is another crucial attribute of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism aims at total, global domination. Its “science” purports to have found universally applicable laws that transcend all national boundaries and it is through this universality that it lays claim to total domination. The nation-state where totalitarianism happens to manifest is just as arbitrary as any other nation-state from the point of view of ideology. Thus, huge numbers of people in Russia especially, but also in Germany, were killed by the ideology of the Soviets and Nazis respectively. Neither racial theory nor dialectical materialism cared about Germans or Russians either as a people or as a nation.

Because of that, the Nazis (and Soviets) did things that defied all common sense, all pragmatism, all utilitarian considerations. While they were fighting a war on multiple fronts, the Nazis diverted significant resources to the running of the concentration camps even when those activities were actively harming the war effort. Party officials who pointed this out were removed.

Similarly, even when it was clear that the war was lost, the ideological activities continued. If the Nazis really had been true nationalists, they would have done whatever was best for the German nation. But they weren’t. They were racial ideologues. They didn’t care about Germany.

It is the unyielding devotion to the laws of an ideology that characterises totalitarianism. To understand totalitarianism, we must dissociate it from the historical accidents of Nazism and Soviet ideology. We must get rid of the idea that it is always murderous and violent. We must separate it from the similar but fundamentally different political form called tyranny. It is to Hannah Arendt’s eternal credit that she was able to do that even though she was personally tied up with the history of Nazism.

In some sense, we have it easier because we have all now lived through a real-world example. With corona, we experienced totalitarianism dissociated from the historical parallels of violence and murder. We are now able to understand in both an intellectual and intuitive sense what totalitarianism really is.

Corona as Benevolent Totalitarianism

To reiterate: Totalitarianism is the belief that anything is possible when society is re-organised according to the “laws of nature”.

When western societies decided to lockdown in March of 2020, we entered into a totalitarian world: we re-organised our society according to the supposed “laws” of viral disease. All pragmatic, common sense and utilitarian considerations were discarded. The economic effects, the effects on the education of children, the effects of cutting off the elderly from human contact or of disrupting access to medical care, any other consideration was tossed aside for the cold hard logic of “stopping the spread”. That was the only thing that mattered. This singled-minded fixation on one thing to the exclusion of all else is a key component of the psychology of totalitarianism.

Note that one of the main things that was thrown overboard was compassion. I’m talking about genuine compassion for other human beings not the faux compassion of people who claim to want to save grandma. Benevolent Totalitarianism is totalitarianism in the guise of compassion. This form of totalitarianism pretends to have your best interests at heart. It pretends to want to keep you “safe” and “protect” you. You’re free to believe that in the same way you might believe that dictators can be benevolent. But a dictator is still a dictator and totalitarianism is still totalitarianism, even when it’s cloaked in compassion.

During corona, all the core ceremonies which give meaning to life – the birth of a child, marriage and funeral rites – were abandoned during the lockdowns. That is not a coincidence because those ceremonies are concerned with individuals. Totalitarianism, by contrast, is always and only concerned with the aggregate. The “laws of nature” are always about aggregates. The species, the race, the class, the nation, these are collective terms in which the individual plays no role except as a homogeneous and uninteresting exemplar.

This attitude did not come out of nowhere. The de-prioritising of the individual in favour of the collective had begun in earnest in the 19th century. With industrialisation, the production of goods and services was re-worked according to the laws of the machine. This won some nations an accumulation (in fact, an oversupply) of goods but the price was that it created a population of superfluous people who were duly thrown on the scrapheap via unemployment. There was no welfare system in the 19th century. The streets of London were filled with people who took on the form of one giant human sacrifice; the sacrifice to the greater good.

This sacrifice created the initial conditions of terror which preceded the totalitarianism of the 20th century. People realised they now lived in a society which would allow them to die in the gutter. The same society talked about abstract “rights” but what is the point in having rights if you are starving? The hypocrisy of such a society lead to disillusionment and desperation.

Totalitarianism took these trends and added to them the horrors of WW1. The Nazis were full of men who had not only felt the humiliation of unemployment, they had been in the meatgrinder of the trenches of WW1. Their hearts were full of hatred and many of them really wanted to see everything burn.

Because totalitarianism originated in such hatred, we assume that totalitarianism requires hatred in order to manifest. That is another thing our Hitler Complex implies. But this is not true. There is nothing in the concept of re-organising society according to the laws of nature that implies any emotional content. On the contrary, the possession of laws of nature and an understanding of their logical implications requires nothing more than cold, hard logic. This was another brilliant insight of Arendt’s. We think of both Hitler and Stalin as raging madmen. But their peers thought of them as clear-minded rationalists. It is the absence of empathy – genuine empathy not fake compassion – that is the problem with totalitarianism.

Thus, we were told the corona measures were there to save grandma while grandma herself was locked up in a nursing home unable to see any family members and surrounded by people in hazmat suits. That is not empathy. That is terror.

We see the exact same dynamic in the climate debate (it’s not really a “debate”, is it?). It’s all about saving the planet and preventing a climate apocalypse. We want to save the planet by combatting climate change and we want to save grandma by combatting viral disease. What lies beneath both of these is the core tenet of totalitarianism: the re-organising of society in accordance with the “laws” of climate and viruses.

Although politicians are drawn to totalitarianism like moths to the flame because it gives them far more (perceived) power than even a dictator, we must acknowledge that the underlying belief system which gives rise to totalitarianism is prevalent in the general culture including and especially by people who would probably consider themselves apolitical. Let’s look at a prime example.

The Totalitarian Mindset

I can think of no better example of the Benevolent Totalitarian mindset than the above cartoon published early on in the corona hysteria on the well-known website XKCD. XKDC is particularly popular with people who are proponents of science and technology. They are the ones who work at Google, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Tesla and SpaceX, so this gives us an insight especially into our “tech elites”.

The cleverness of the cartoon is that it presents the whole thing from the point of view of the virus. The virus is apparently self-aware. It understands the “law of nature” which governs its own existence, which is that it must spread. In the cartoon, the virus is playing the role of the scientific “law”. From the point of view of the “law”, humans are a single, homogeneous entity. Any specific characteristics that individuals might have such as immunity via prior infection, general health, lifestyle, age or whatever are irrelevant (of course, this is not scientifically true, which is why I call it the naive germ theory).

The cartoon shows what happens when the humans figure out the “law” and then re-organise society according to it by staying home and eating pasta. The cunning virus looks defeated. Its last chance is that the humans will “give up”.

In the mentality of this cartoon and the people who think this way, there is no question of being right or wrong. They know they are right. They have discovered a law of nature. The job of the humans is simply to follow the “law” (if this sounds quasi-religious, that’s because it is).

I find it highly amusing that, because the cartoon was drawn in March 2020, the “law” did not yet include mandatory face masks. This was the time when the “law” told us that compulsive hand washing was the way to eliminate the virus.

Another reason why the cartoon is a valuable piece of historical evidence is because it reveals the underlying mindset as well as the political reality. This was not a piece of deliberate propaganda. The author was not acting on instructions from a central authority. This was the honest expression of a viewpoint held by an individual. Numerous other people at the same time expressed the same viewpoint, especially those from the science and tech communities.

This demonstrates the second key attribute of Benevolent Totalitarianism: it is decentralised. There is no leader. The Hitler Complex tells us to look for a strong man leader whenever we look for totalitarianism. But as Arendt had already pointed out, a leader is not required for totalitarianism to manifest. What is required is an ideology.

This is one of the key attributes that separates totalitarianism from tyranny. So, let’s do a thought experiment to clarify further.

Everybody knows that you shouldn’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre. But should you yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre if there really is a fire and people need to get out?

Let’s pretend for the sake of the argument that this is an old-fashioned theatre with no fire escape. As the philosopher kings in this story, we are given the task of saving as many people as possible. By definition, we are concerned with an aggregate of people, not a series of individuals. We are not considering the individual circumstances of anybody who is in the theatre. We just want to save the highest percentage of the crowd.

We create a mathematical model which says that if we yell “fire!” in the theatre more people will die than if we get each person to leave individually. Using this method, we can get those nearest the door out quickly before the rest of the people realise what is going on and panic. With this strategy, the people who are furthest from the door will die, but we will save the greatest number of people.

This is the very definition of a Benevolent Dictatorship (philosopher kings were always benevolent dictators). As benevolent dictators, we organise society according to a model that gives the greatest good for the greatest number. The difference between the benevolent dictator and the tyrant is that the later does not care about the people and probably wouldn’t bother to save them from a fire.

In order to modify the thought experiment so that it represents the political system of totalitarianism, we have to do something counter-intuitive. We must remove ourselves as philosopher kings.

This was Hannah Arendt’s brilliant insight. Totalitarianism does not require leaders at all. It requires an agreement on the part of society to follow the “law” but not in the form of rules (more on that shortly). The agreement to follow the “law” is not explicit and exoteric. Rather, it is achieved through the promulgation of an ideology. It also requires a certain psychological profile.

One of the defining characteristics of the Nazi true believers was the complete lack of an instinct of self-preservation. On the contrary, they willingly went to their deaths in service to the Nazi ideology believing it was for the greater good (the creation of a master race). When somebody yells “fire!” in a crowded theatre, it is exactly that instinct of self-preservation that kicks in. People go into fight or flight mode which leads to a chaos.

In totalitarianism, chaos is avoided by the allegiance of every individual to the greater good via ideology. Benevolent Totalitarianism requires a society of people who will no longer pursue their own self-interest (this is a huge change from the ethic of the bourgeoisie which was all about self-interest – greed is good).

To capture the essence of Benevolent Totalitarianism in our thought experiment, we must remove ourselves as the benevolent dictators. Instead, we will educate the people in the theatre so that when the fire starts, they do not follow their self-interest but they follow the “law”. How does the “law” get promulgated? It doesn’t really matter. There might be a central authority to tell people that a fire has started or the message may propagate through the crowd just like the internet propagates a message, node-to-node (just like that XKCD cartoon). The mechanism is not crucial. What is crucial is that the people will follow the “law”, the ideology.

The people farthest from the door will die. But those people do not object because, like the Nazi true believers, they are not pursuing self-interest. They are completely subservient to the “law”. They die in full consciousness that they are doing the right thing by acting in accordance with the ideology. This is not a theoretical conjecture. It’s really what happened in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The true believers willingly sacrificed and even died for the cause when the ideology required it. (We saw the same psychology during the last 3 years).

Whether you think this is a good idea or not depends on whether you think the “law” really is infallible. Nobody in the modern west would accept any “law” pertaining to race theory or dialectical materialism (except for a few hardcore communists and fascists in dark rooms). We look at the Nazis and Soviets and think how stupid and bigoted they were to follow such “pseudoscience”. Yet we will happily follow a different “law” and a different “science” because we believe it to be true. The underlying form is the same. If you accept that society should be re-organised according to an ideology, you believe in Benevolent Totalitarianism.

With this we re-join another of key intellectual currents that began in the 19th century: the idea that there could be theories of everything and the notion that everything followed deterministically and mechanically from premises. This idea lives on to this day whenever somebody talks about machine learning, or AI or quantum computing. All we need is more computing power and then we can calculate everything and our models will be infallible. This is why Benevolent Totalitarianism has a lot of support among people who work with computers.

Of course, it’s all arrogance and hubris coupled with an unwillingness to investigate and question your assumptions, a failure of imagination and the lack of real-world experience in the domain of empirical science to believe that just because you can’t think of any way you might be wrong, therefore you cannot be wrong and just because you have good intentions, everything you do must be good.

Benevolent Totalitarianism is the belief that if we only use totalitarianism for good instead of evil, everything will work out fine in just the same way that everybody thinks they would be a benevolent dictator if given the chance.

How Benevolent Totalitarianism arranges modern politics

The underlying ideologies that justify Benevolent Totalitarianism are shared widely in our society but, as Arendt noted, totalitarianism is primarily a new form of political organisation and that is where it is most relevant to all of us, especially now that that system has revealed itself.

When thinking of how totalitarianism fits into modern political systems, I think a good analogy is the onion. The core of the onion is the centre of power while each ring is successively further away from power. At the outer layers, people (and nations!) can be completely oblivious to both the operation of power or the core ideology that is being followed.

Arendt called this outer layer the “sympathisers”. They are the ones who passively follow along. At the core are the True Believers. The Sympathisers are shielded from the True Believers by a variety of “front organisations” who simplify the ideology, which the average Sympathiser would find too confronting, into terms that the Sympathisers can deal with. Trust the science. Stop the spread. 14 days to flatten the curve. These were all propagated through the Front organisations for consumption by the Sympathisers.

What follows from this is another counter-intuitive idea: the leaders of national and state governments and the MSM in each country are really Front Organisations. They are not the centre of power. Rather, they sit between the centre of power and translate its requirements in terms that the citizens of the respective nations can understand. Thus, the citizens of the nation-states are mostly Sympathisers; they are made to passively follow along.

Meanwhile, the True Believers form an inner network that is truly global in nature. It includes members of each nation’s public service, academics, certain MSM journalists, high-ranking employees of multi-national corporations, NGOs, financiers and billionaires. The people who worked at FTX and the people who were censoring Twitter are prime examples of the inner network of True Believers.

Arendt provided us with a detailed account of how this system works in her description of the Nazis and Soviets as having as organisational structures which seemed incredibly chaotic and inefficient including duplication of function so that there were often two or more agencies who seemed to have the same job. This seeming chaos was actually there to neuter those organisations because bureaucracies have structure, they run on rules and hierarchy. But Totalitarianism must run on ideology.

Thus, totalitarianism not only does not require leaders, it actively subverts them. It breaks down traditional authority structures and hierarchies. The Nazis simply ignored the constitution of the Weimar Republic and built their own system around it.

When you subvert the bureaucracy in this way, you create a system where the rules can change at the drop of a hat. In a traditional bureaucracy, changing the rules is really hard; so hard, in fact, that an entire profession called “change management” has been created whose only purpose is to facilitate the changing of rules. The Nazis and Soviets got around that by deliberately making the bureaucracy redundant. People were still following orders but those orders could come from anywhere including outside the bureaucracy.

The people who work in the organisations, therefore, become conditioned to await instructions which can come at any time and from anywhere, a far more dynamic system than traditional bureaucracy. The breakdown of chains of command in both the Nazi and Soviet systems created a network organisational structure. You didn’t just follow orders from your immediate superior. You followed orders from anywhere.

Such a totalitarian system rewards obedience to the overarching ideology whether it be race theory in Nazi Germany, dialectical materialism in Soviet Russia or any of the ideologies that exist in our society. The primary type of employee in the system is no longer the bureaucrat but the ideologue. The obedience of the ideologue to the ideology transcends any allegiance they have to the organisation. Although the Nazis taught absolute allegiance to the Führer, the Führer himself was simply the carrier of the ideology. The Nazis and the Soviets started out as old-fashioned tyrannies, but they transitioned over a period of years into this kind of totalitarian system.

Over time, the people who end up at the centre of the totalitarian system are not the ones who are best at organising things. They are not bureaucrats or managers. They are ideologues. Such ideologues can be moved effortlessly between organisations and still be good servants of “the system”. By comparison, the bureaucrat who is just “doing their job”, is hopelessly inefficient.

The ideologues who can navigate effortlessly between all organisations form themselves into a matrix surrounding the core centre of power. You increase your power as you get closer to the “centre” and the entry to the centre depends on your allegiance to the ideology and your proven willingness to re-organise society according to its “laws”.

This duplication of function in the totalitarian system, which looks highly inefficient to an outsider, creates confusion and serves to hide the real structure from those outside, where “outside” also includes citizens of nation states. Thus, we get the shadowy, secretive nature of totalitarianism which makes it really hard to figure out what’s going on (Exhibit A: the secret contracts governments signed with Pfizer and the other vaccine manufacturers).

The constant confusion also prevents people from getting comfortable. It prevents bureaucracies doing what they always do which is atrophying and becoming incapable of change. Confusion creates dynamism. The totalitarian system transmits a constant and ever-changing stream of ideology which serves to keep people on their toes. Those who fail to keep up-to-date will be knifed by those seeking to get closer to the centre of power, providing incentives for obedience to the ideology while also creating a flat organisational structure where seniority and experience count for little.

Benevolent Totalitarianism is, in some sense, an “improvement” on the system which first appeared in Germany and Russia. Both the Nazis and Soviets started out as tyrannies and, although they managed for a brief time to implement true totalitarianism, neither system could survive the loss of the leader which created it. There were still too many people caught up in the cult of personality that got Hitler to power in the first place. By removing the need for a leader, Benevolent Totalitarianism can propagate itself endlessly and invisibly. This is why Benevolent Totalitarianism is the Unconscious Empire; an empire without an emperor.

Freed from the constraints of the old bureaucracies and hierarchical structures, Benevolent Totalitarianism has generated a dizzying array of ideologies. Whereas the Nazis and Soviets were tied to a single ideology, we see multiple ideologies at play whose unifying thread is that they take an everyday concept and turn it into an ideological battleground. To paraphrase Arendt, it’s the banality of ideology.

Ideologies now cover all the most basic elements of existence: the weather, catching a cold, your gender, your occupation, your race (ironic, eh?), your country. All of these are generic enough to be universally applicable and flexible enough to be tailored to any specific context. Thus, Benevolent Totalitarianism is a global system and, although it is true that the centre of power mostly resides in the United States, its power can be distributed anywhere.

Remember the freak out when Trump was elected because he was going to become a “dictator”? What happened instead was that the entire system, the inner network and the Front Organisations, turned against him. They tried Russigate. They tried impeachment. They tried everything.

Ironically, the network attacked Trump in exactly the same way that a body defends itself from a virus. The fact that it was corona that finally brought Trump down is a level of meta-irony that makes your head spin. From the point of view of “the system”, Trump was the virus. Corona was the antibody.

Conclusion

Totalitarianism cannot abide by the spontaneous, the emergent, the novel (another meta-irony: the corona hysteria was triggered by the idea of a “novel” virus, an almost meaningless concept). To re-organise society according to the “law” means that everything from conception til death simply fulfils its law-abiding, predetermined function. All individuality is stripped away and you become nothing more than a particle obeying the laws of nature. Totalitarianism is the determinist philosophy of the 19th century made into a political reality.

For that reason, I think it’s accurate to say that totalitarianism is the embodiment of the anti-Christ and it seems rather synchronous that this series of posts has come to an end in the week before Christmas (I swear I didn’t plan it that way!)  

Christmas is about the individual embodied in Christ. The “-mas” at the end relates to the word mission. Christ’s birth begins his mission, his life. What that mission is, nobody can say. It can only be revealed. It cannot be known by logic or dialectic or calculated by a computer. Consider the following painting by renaissance artist Giovanni di Paolo.

The wise men bow down before the Christ child. The King also visits to pay his respects. The worldly power, the laws of man and all the knowledge of the world bow down before the child who carries with him the promise to overturn everything we thought we knew about the world. It is the celebration of the new, the spontaneous, the individual.

We can only love each other as individuals. A society which separates the natural bonds between individuals is a society where love cannot exist and no amount of fake compassion and Benevolent Totalitarianism can ever put it back.

On that note, I’d like to wish everybody a Merry Christmas. I hope you connect with those you love.

(P.S. – I’ll be on holiday for the next few weeks doing my usual trick of trying to enjoy the summer weather while also trying not to let the Australian sun burn my lily-white skin to a crisp. I won’t be writing anything new during that time but I will be responding to any comments. Otherwise, see ya next year).

All posts in this series:-

Philosopher Kings vs Networks
The Unconscious Empire
The Unconscious Empire Pt 2: The Hitler Complex
The Unconscious Empire Pt 3: A Prison for your Mind
The Unconscious Empire Pt 4: Becoming the Other
The Unconscious Empire Final: Benevolent Totalitarianism