I thought it might be a bit of fun to take the concepts from the last post and apply them to some well-known movies. It turns out that the notions of civilisational decline through corruption and attempted renewal by the Internal Proletariat are central to the plot of some of the most famous movies and stories. Let’s have a look at half a dozen of the most relevant.
(Note: you’ll need to have read the last post in this series in order to make sense of this one. You can find it here.)
Analysis: Gladiator shows the dynamic where the Dominant Minority comes to power. At the start of the movie, Maximus and Marcus Aurelius are in charge and winning against the barbarians. Although it’s not really true in the historical arc of the Classical civilisation (according to Toynbee and Spengler), for the purposes of the film they are the Creative Minority. Aurelius foresees the coming danger that the Dominant Minority poses and he tells Maximus that he must take power to avert it.
Commodus betrays them both in a coup (very accurate from a historical point of view) and Maximus becomes part of the Internal Proletariat. Eventually, he kills Commodus. The Internal Proletariat wins against the Dominant Minority and the implication is that the Creative Minority is restored to power.
Analysis: This one’s pretty straightforward. The Internal Proletariat is the Rebel Alliance. The Dominant Minority is The Empire. A single man (Palpatine) has usurped power. The Internal Proletariat wants to return things to the way they used to be (a republic). It’s all very Roman.
Analysis: ok, now it gets more complex and also more modern. Terminator 2 is set in the time prior to where the Dominant Minority has taken control and there is still a chance to avert it. The Dominant Minority is Skynet and its terminators. John Connor is the Rebel Commander in the future, but he’s still just a boy in the movie. His mother plays the Rebel Commander in the present time.
Why is the T-800 the Rebel Priest? Firstly, because he is the messenger warning of the time when the Dominant Minority will take over. Secondly, his journey in the movie is to learn what it is to be human. He is an ex-member of the Dominant Minority who has rebelled and joined the Internal Proletariat. The implication is that the Dominant Minority is not human and this is correct. The Dominant Minority is now the Machine.
The symbolism of machines here works as a metaphor for the overall civilisational dynamic. Machines are not creative and, by definition, cannot be the Creative Minority. But the Terminator movies don’t just capture the dynamic of the Dominant Minority in general. They capture the specifically Faustian version of that dynamic because it is only Faustian culture that has worshipped the Machine. ChatGPT is only the latest, and certainly won’t be the last, object of that worship.
Analysis: with The Matrix we see the issue of technology come to the fore again. But, in this case, the battleground is reality itself. The leaders of the Internal Proletariat are those who have stepped outside of the world of appearance. This process is incredibly painful, as Neo’s initiation shows us. The battle is fought both inside and outside the Matrix as the Dominant Minority also exists outside of that world (the sentinels attacking the ship) as well as inside it (the agents).
I’ll probably need to spend a whole post unpacking the issues raised by the Matrix. In one sense, it is very Magian and even contains explicit reference to Magian religious and cultural symbolism (Trinity, Zion, Nebuchadnezzar). The metaphysics is very Judeo-Christian but we can see a similar pattern in Plato and Buddha, the Rebel Priests of the Classical and the Indic civilisations respectively. This raises a big question: does epistemology (the questioning of appearance) only appear during the decadence of a culture?
Analysis: Total Recall uses the same trick as Terminator in that Schwarzenegger’s character, Quaid, communicates across time. Just like the T-800, Quaid is a former member of the Dominant Minority who has changed teams and joined the Internal Proletariat. The film also shares with The Matrix the fact that the protagonist has an epistemological problem. He must battle within his own mind to figure out what is reality and what is not. And there’s also an explicitly capitalist critique built in since the Dominant Minority of Cohaagen and Richter are immiserating the Internal Proletariat for their own gain.
Lord of the Rings
Analysis: here is another one that probably needs a whole post. The ring that confers invisibility and/or power is an idea that goes back at least to Plato. Invisibility is power in the same way that shapeshifting is power, because you escape the defences of the organism. In the case of society, those defences include the Majority themselves who think they are serving a leader who is just and would presumably fight back if they knew what was really going on.
As far as the story of Lord of the Rings goes, the symbolism is more straightforward. The One Ring was deliberately created by Sauron to gain domination. Therefore, he represents the Dominant Minority. The Shire is the feudal world of early Europe which is not yet immiserated but which is under threat. Thus, Lord of the Rings can be seen as a parallel with the actual history of Faustian culture as the feudal world tried to prevent itself becoming the Internal Proletariat (the German Peasant’s Revolt of 1525 is one of the main examples).
Of course, as we know, the feudal world was destroyed by the princes, kings and rising bourgeoisie who sought centralisation of power.
Note: Wagner’s Ring Cycle is potentially very interesting in this connection since it is one of German romanticism’s attempts to grapple with these issues.
I think these were the main movies/stories which include the concepts of civilisational decline. I’d be interested to hear any others that people can suggest.
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 5: On Elitism
Re-thinking Spengler Part 6: Rogue Priests and Rebel Commanders
Re-thinking Spengler Part 7: A Pop Culture Interlude
Re-thinking Spengler Part 8: Kings and Commoners
Re-thinking Spengler Part 9: Escape from the Tyrannical Father
Re-thinking Spengler Part 10: The USA (Universal State of America)
Re-thinking Spengler Final
12 thoughts on “Re-thinking Spengler Part 7: A Pop-Culture Interlude”
From my point of view, Trump und to some extent Musk fit to the rebel commanders in Gladiator (Maximus) and Star Wars (Rebels). They are all reactionary and want to restore some golden age from the past, which makes them some kind of Nazis nowadays. While Maximus is aiming to restore a just empire and the rebels are aiming to restore the republic, Trump and Musk want to restore 19th century capitalism (e.g. rule of the robber barons, rugged individualism). If you think about the all out media warfare during Trump´s reign, the dominant minority must have cleary viewed him as a potential rebel commander with the ability to “drain the swamp” (e.g. topple the current regime).
It has been some time that I watched the Star Wars movies, but did you choose Han Solo as the Rebel Commander on purpose? I never had the impression that he was a (or the) leader.
Secretface – good point about Hans Solo. I’ve updated the picture with the actual commanders of the Rebel Alliance. I haven’t seen Star Wars in a long time either, so had forgotten who the leaders were.
As for Trump and Musk. I think you’re right and this topic probably needs its own post. Faustian civilisation went from Feudalism to Nation State Capitalism. But Nation State Capitalism had huge problems and needed to be tempered by a kind of socialism in order for it to work. But that started to fall apart in the 70s. Since the 90s we’ve been moving into something new which I would call Benevolent Totalitarianism, although Global Socialism sounds nicer. Thus, corona was Global Socialism asserting itself against Trump who was pushing for a return to Nation State Capitalism.
Simon – I also had to think quite a bit to come up with the real leaders of the rebellion in Star Wars, as they are just supporting cast. The protagonists are more like important chess pieces in the war and not the decission makers.
Benevolent Totalitarianism sounds like good description on what is happening in the last few decades since the collapse of the Sowjet Union. From my point of view, the dominant minority is so successful with their “plan” because the internal proletariat is still developing a name for the problem it faces. If you look into more left wing dissidents, they call the dominant minority “Faschists”, while the right wing dissidents call them “Communists”, in Christian circles they are the “Satanists”. If cannot even agree on how to call your enemy, you will have a hard to get on the same page to get into rebellion territory.
Secretface – the other important point to realise is that we are still absurdly wealthy in the modern west. Historically, when proletariats revolt it’s only because they have nothing left to lose. But everybody now has a lot to lose which gives them every incentive not to rock the boat. So, the Dominant Minority can easily divide and conquer the proletariat.
Because the entire globe is now under a sort of Faustian Pseudomorphosis, could you say that every member of the ‘golden billion’ is actually the dominant minority, and the proletariat is everyone else? Obviously we aren’t the dominant monitory in our own countries, but on a global scale we are. Therefore a proletariat revolt would actually be everyone else asserting themselves? We may be seeing that right now.
Skip – Toynbee calls that the internal vs external proletariat. I think the problem here is that Nation State Capitalism never worked because it was a contradiction in terms. Capitalism required globalisation. It disrupted the Nation State right from the start.
Western elites now want to bypass the Nation State altogether making themselves into a global Dominant Minority. The only alternative on offer seems to be to go “back” to the Nation State. But isn’t the Nation State a Faustian concept to start with? Hasn’t the world organised itself into Nation States because that’s what the Faustian pseudomorphosis required? So, even if we go back to Nation States, whatever that means, wouldn’t that still be a Faustian pseudomorphosis?
Simon – I agree. We are drowning in wealth. I like the concept of the energy slave brought up by Buckminster Fuller. When he came up with the concept, he calculated that we (in Western countries) on average have around 100 energy slaves (e.g. equivalents of human labor) at our disposal. But even though the Western world is insanely rich, we still have movements like the Yellow Vests in France, the Freedom Convoy in Canada or the French/Dutch Farmers protesting againt the system. The dissatisfaction with the government seems to be on the rise. “Mostly peaceful” protests could be an intermediate step to a real rebellion. This trend could be enhanced if the transition from fossil fuels to “renewable” energy does not go smoothly, which I think will be the case. First signs can be seen here in Germany, where we have the second highest energy prices in the world.
Secretface – it would need some organisation, I think. The interesting thing about the German Peasant’s War was that they actually had a set of specific demands. And they were a proper organised fighting force too, so they could make the demands part of peace negotiations. In theory, of course, people don’t need to fight these days. They should be able to vote for what they want 😉
Simon – yeah ‘nation state’ is a completely Faustian concept, hence all those ridiculous lines on the map through the Middle East, Africa etc.
What the civilisation phase requires is Empire; it was probably most antithetical to the classical, who just wanted to live in their polis, but even they managed to do it through Alexander and then the Romans so it seems to be something that is unavoidable, like a runaway catabolic consumption process.
I think it could therefore be argued that there will be no returning to nation states, but there is one factor that Spengler missed (like all writers of his time) and that is environmental limits. Because Faustian civilisation is using up energy at such a high rate, perhaps the whole process is on fast forward compared to past civilisations which went more slowly. Therefore maintaining empire will become much more difficult much sooner compared to the arcs of other civilisations.
It seems to be me as though the Faustian heartland (Europe) prefers to be in Nation states and any time someone tries to unite them they get angry and rid themselves of it eventually (clock is ticking on the EU). I think it could be easier to keep the colonial federations together (USA, Aus, Canada, Brazil etc) because they can actually be nation states: same language, martial history etc.
The USA, being the eldest, is probably the furthest along towards breaking up as the difference between the states are becoming national level differences.
Skip – “…so it seems to be something that is unavoidable, like a runaway catabolic consumption process.”
Well, that’s the big question. Why does it happen at all? If Spengler is right and civilisation is best thought of as a group of core ideas that unify a group of people, what does that have to do with growth? Why couldn’t you have a group of people just pursuing truth and beauty on a mountain somewhere?
Which is another potential issue with Spengler since military technology seems to be one thing that very quickly jumps between cultures. Even the Romans were happy to steal barbarian technology and practices once they’d seen them work in battle.
From an ecological perspective, it’s actually pretty simple, Howard Odum and other system ecologists worked it out in detail over the last 50 years or so.
Dense human populations form where it is possible to capture concentrated eMergy (a complex embodied energy measure) sources, and kickstart a growth process under the maximum power principle (like an organism) that leads down a well defined path (Spengler, Toynbee). Where these concentrated sources lie is almost always in river valleys off of big mountains or coastal locations where you can concentrate resources from the sea, in particular archipelagos. One of the reasons the Australian continent didn’t have it (since the end of the last ice age, might of before then) is that the eMergy flows never concentrate to large enough levels for a variety of reasons (in particular mountains too small leading to no big rivers). However, there is interesting evidence that is was beginning to happen again here, in particular in south western Victoria, where Australia’s only recent scale vulcanism and increasing rainfall was increasing the potential.
I don’t necessarily think Spengler though of civilisation as a group of ideas, that was his definition of a great culture. As far as I can tell his definition of civilisation is similar to the cancerous growth idea that comes at the end of a culture, where the cities grow too big and start consuming the surrounding countryside rather than contributing to it, culminating in world city like Rome, Babylon, Tenochitlan, New York etc. This could just be another way to frame Odum’s maximum power principle from the German-Romantic perspective (and of course, its all very Faustian).
I think Spengler contradicts himself on this question. Sometimes he takes the extreme Nietzschean position that all philosophy and theology is just BS and makes no difference to the “real world” (which is all politics, will-to-power). Other times, he seems to suggest that culture is a binary. You’re either part of a great culture or you’re not civilised at all. And, of course, he even says that most of the people who happen to live in a great culture don’t really understand it anyway and so are just blindly following along.
The ecological perspective makes sense to me but isn’t it very un-Faustian? After all, the Faustian is supposed to be predicated on infinity? This is a larger question I still don’t have an answer to but it seems to me that the 19th century could be analysed as the birth of something new.