From Schmitt to Jünger and Thiel: On Mass Mobilization and the Great Stagnation
“Why would viewpoints matter if an avalanche is coming down?”
— Ernst Jünger
Whether we think the polarization we are witnessing in the US and the West is either an exception or something recurring in history, it’s hard to deny its cultural and political destructiveness. The disparity in the resources available to both sides of the divide has wreaked havoc, ending careers and ruining lives. Not only the right to express one’s views has been taken away, but even that to participate in the employment and financial system.
This hyperpartisanship causes sense of nuance and tolerance for dissent to disappear. Reason becomes suspicious, as do free individuals with no defined partisan identity or affiliation. Compromise seems unattainable, the common ground crumbles under the pressure of ideology. Everything becomes an instrument of struggle: science, journalism, history, art, relations between sexes — all eventually end up suffering degradation. Moral desensitization further occurs as good and evil move from the human and absolute scale to the partisan or ideological register. Society is slowly overcome by resentment.
How might this prolonged, intensifying state of hyperpartisanship end? Historian James Hankins lists three possible solutions: revolution, war, or tyranny. The work of German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt, however, seems to suggest a fourth option: neutralization.
SUCCESSION OF CENTRAL AREAS AND THE GREAT STAGNATION
As Schmitt described them, the last four centuries can be seen as a succession of ‘central areas’. A central area is the core around which the elites’ thinking takes shape. The transition from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century can be seen as an exit from the theological frame of reference to the time of metaphysics; the eighteenth century as a shift from the metaphysical to the humanitarian-moralist era; the nineteenth century as the age of economism; the twentieth century as a move beyond economism towards a technological period.
Transitioning from one central area to another means that the creative and active elite of a given time moves its focal point. The shift from the theological frame of reference of the sixteenth century to the metaphysical one of the seventeenth century provides a vivid example: God is no longer a being, but a concept. All the scientific, mathematical achievements of this century — from Galileo to Descartes, from Leibniz to Newton — are embedded in a metaphysical or ‘natural’ system. Just as all thinkers of the previous era were theologians, all thinkers now are metaphysicians. The eighteenth century abandons metaphysics and adopt ethics as its center of gravity, in which everything is considered from a moral perspective. The nineteenth century introduces a new system in which moral categories recede into the background and are replaced by economic questions.
The central area of an age imposes a perspective from which each event is perceived. One of the examples used by Schmitt is that of the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The earthquake is known to have caused a torrent of moralizing literature, whereas today it would likely leave no intellectual trace. Every idea gains its meaning from the prevailing central area. Progress in the age of moralism means moral progress, in the age of economism economic development, in that of technology new inventions, and so forth. The problems of the reigning frame of reference take precedence and solving them is seen as the key to tackling the problems emerging from all other areas. When theology was the central area — for example — it was believed that once theological problems were dealt with everything else would fall into place.
The succession of these cores, around which subsequent periods emerge, is also a sequence of ‘neutralizations’. After the hopeless theological disputes of the sixteenth century, Europe sought a new ground on which she would be able to resolve conflict and find consensus. Theological concepts and arguments, seeds of strife, were abandoned in order to move towards a neutral metaphysical zone. When tensions within a single frame of reference take on a life of their own with no view of ending them, then a shift to neutral ground occurs. The new set-up allows for at least rudimentary compromise and agreement on basic premises.
During any single age a plurality of forces coexist. The migration through the central areas is not subject to iron laws of history. It is neither a linear movement nor one that applies to all civilizations in the same manner. When Schmitt described this movement between central areas in the late 1920s, he was defining his time as the beginning of the technological age. All issues, the state, freedom, the economy, rights of the individual, etc., he thought, were going to be determined from within the technological core of the new period. But by the end of the 1960s, the West abandoned the technological era. As billionaire and venture capitalist Peter Thiel says:
The history of the twentieth century is a history of this loss of hope in the future. This disillusionment hit with full force in the 1970s, when the successor Apollo program collapsed and the baby boomers redirected their energies toward interminable cultural wars.
While leaving the central area implied abandoning faith in technology, this was far from a step into the void. Morality again became the new fulcrum for the US and the West. Ethics was again the measure of all things: immigration, for example, was no longer to be examined under economic, demographic or cultural lenses, but became strictly a moral obligation; the state was not a shield of the nation or a tool for development, but the perpetrator of all historical wrongdoings as well as an instrument of possible redemption (if one listens to the sermons of moralistic ideology). The further to the left, the greater the moralistic blindness.
What suffers most from this hypermoralization is politics: all efforts are made to demonize the opponent or to fight against demonization. In Europe, one need only to think of Marine Le Pen, the leader of Rassemblement National, whose entire independent political career can be reduced to the pursuit of stratégie de dediabolisation: the effort to prove that she is not the devil incarnate.
Western man has turned away from the world to turn inward and delve into Eastern meditation, yoga, therapy, only to plunge into pools of dopamine: social media, porn, and games — or as a Chinese government publication recently called it, “spiritual opium.” Nothing illustrates better the pernicious effect of this digital intoxication than the infamous survey which found that western kids dream to become social media influencers, as opposed to their Chinese peers who wish to grow up to become astronauts.
The Great Stagnation, which can be understood as an abandonment of the technological central area followed by redirection of energy towards the area of moralism and ideology, is accompanied by a retreat into inwardness. The will to conquer space is gone in favor of things like the ’60s counterculture movement’s adoption of LSD and other psychedelic substances. The great adventure of the West has faltered. We now live in the age of les paradis artificiels and culture wars. Ending it would not only mean the dissipation of the artificial paradise, but also a shift to the neutral technological ground, where culture wars would subside.
As German soldier and philosopher Ernst Jünger understood it, total mobilization was the main socio-political dynamic of the 20th century. The notion denotes the extent and intensity of the participation of state and national resources in interstate conflict or in preparations for one. In nineteenth-century Europe, for example, wars were limited in their nature, as they were mostly fought far from cities and populations and even with reluctance of parliaments. Modern conflict, however, as Jünger recognized it in 1914 while fighting in the trenches, requires the mobilization of all means: not just professional soldiers, but entire populations, industries, resources, and every person capable of working. Mobilization thus becomes total, as it does not concern only a slice of the state and society, but its entirety. As Jünger points out, the crux of the matter is not militarism, because the means of war are not the most important. What counts is “a force that is able to form all instruments promptly.”
Total mobilization means creating the conditions necessary for the state and society to use the entire potential of the economy and technology when the time requires it. While historically it has also required the participation of the entire population, because total mobilization is now less industrial and more technological in its nature, it is the participation and readiness of the creative elite that becomes paramount.
Today, this notion should be interpreted rather as a form of competition between states from the technological central area. China understands this: In order to preserve and intensify its capacity for total mobilization, Xi Jinping wants to pull its population away from the so-called ‘spiritual opium’ plaguing the West. The Chinese Communists rightly assume that technological progress is not made through Twitter or Snapchat, nor that civilizations advance because of WeChat or Weibo, and that the consumer-facing internet is not a proxy for power — which is why the Chinese lavish with funds AI research and semiconductor industry. It’s rather a different kind of technology that builds it. Their recent crackdown on tech has focused on the types of technology that neither contribute to the acceleration of civilization nor to the enhancement of state power precisely because the Chinese leader knows how difficult it is to break stagnation once you fall into it. As he made clear, the digital aspect of the economy is important, but it must never lead to deindustrialization.
Total mobilization as a mode of competition between powers from a technological central area strives for technological monopoly. Thinkers as diverse as the reserved skeptic Paul Valéry or Oswald Spengler – the pessimist who never lost faith in action – viewed the fact that the West shared its technology with the rest of the world as suicidal. Today this technological monopoly is again acquiring existential significance. How to achieve this monopoly in critical domains and how to maintain it becomes the crucial question: Are current liberal institutions capable of gaining and sustaining it?
While it’s true that some have accumulated wealth and some haven’t, that some run all the institutions while others barely gather the amount of social capital necessary to be relevant, contemporary generations seem to share a detachment from the fate of the nation and a constant, narcissistic drive to seek their own satisfaction, which is the opposite of duty. As Jünger noted with the generation that decided the outcome in World War I, the one that sets the tone for modern life in the West today differs only through their various means of escapism. Current liberal institutions are not capable of gaining and safeguarding mass mobilization.
TOWARDS THE END OF NIHILISM
An additional shift to ‘technological central area’ could mean the regeneration of concepts and values by changing their content. Freedom would cease to mean a narcissistic pursuit of pleasure and applause. Founded on the will to build, it would no longer be hedonistic or purely abstract. The same could happen with other values, as the entire moral, political, and cultural landscape would be affected. The new technological age, most importantly, could mean the neutralization of the sterile ideological war.
These transformations would first be seen among the elite. The West needs builders and leaders or it risks sharing the fate of the Catholic Church: plenty of columnists discussing its malaise and not a single saint to carry on its truth.
For now, the US appears to be the most dynamic force of the West. The prognosis for Europe on the other hand is not encouraging. The old continent lives, as it were, in a different era than the US and China. It is possible that it will suffer a fate similar to that of Austria-Hungary, which held on for so long to charming, yet still old forms of thought and conventions, dated economic solutions and ossified social order, until history finally lost its patience.
In the tradition of European thinking of the last century, including Schmitt’s, technology was perceived as a force of nihilism: Hollowing out concepts, destroying values, strangling culture. Yet that it is not an irreversible or inevitable process. Technology, as Peter Thiel points out, in its bold forms, can resurrect the Judeo-Christian civilization in some respect. The Bible, the entrepreneur reminds us, begins with the Garden of Eden and ends with the revelation of the city.
As we’re increasingly unable to hang on to any image or idea of the past, a certain restlessness grows in the atmosphere of our time. We live at a crossroads without knowing it. It is said that when a snake changes its skin, it goes blind. But we will be sure that we have crossed the threshold of a new era when we feel, as Jünger writes, that “it is possible to shape life in a great style and according to great scales.” We will contribute to this by radicalizing our own aspirations.