It’s a truism that globalization is no longer just a matter of commerce and investment, but also of culture and media. We live in a society that increasingly denies any kind of meaningful social or cultural boundaries, and reflexively takes its doing so as a point of pride, as proof of its progressiveness and enlightenment (with varying degrees of justification). The implicit goal is the perfection of a worldwide system, whereby corporations, money, materials, and of course people will be able to move freely, without interference from parochial entities such as nations, customs, religions, or social groupings of any kind.
Of course in reality this “freedom” most often refers not to the personal freedom to choose one’s own forms of meaning or one’s own communities, but the freedom of enormous organizations and impersonal economic forces to subject, direct and channel individuals according to organizational needs–with the highest of these needs being technological novelty and the growth-imperative. It is taken without reflection that the meeting of these needs, in turn, surely redounds to the benefit of the individuals–even if unequally.
Perhaps no man has observed and anatomized these trends as incisively and pungently as did Oswald Spengler nearly 100 years ago, when he summed up Western technological civilization with the term “Faustian”–after the German mythic and literary figure of Faust, a supreme scholar who masters the mysteries of the universe but, failing to find true joy, sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles.
Like its namesake, Faustian civilization is defined at its inmost by a deeply shared mood of striving after infinity, a relentless breaking down of boundaries and limits, and a commitment to unifying and subjecting the world through technological advance. In his short work Man and Technics, which summarizes many of the ideas in his immense magnum opus Decline of the West, Spengler pinpoints the origin of the Faustian in:
“A will-to-power which laughs at all bounds of time and space, which indeed regards the boundless and endless, as its specific target, subjects whole continents to itself, eventually embraces the world in the network of its forms of communication and intercourse, and transforms it by the force of its practical energy and the gigantic power of its technical processes.”
Certainly this description bears an unmistakable resemblance to our present circumstance, one where our glowing and growing cities, with populations often numbering in the tens of millions, can be seen from space covering whole landmasses; where a huge portion of the planet’s available primary productivity is now dedicated to feeding humans; and where there is even talk about naming a new geological epoch after ourselves (the “Anthropocene”).
Yet as much as technological prowess and sheer expansiveness may be the superb achievement of Faustian civilizations, the very name implies that that prowess comes with a sinister hidden cost. Indeed, the fact that infinity is inherently unachievable–hence that all attempts to achieve it must fall back in exhaustion–denies such civilizations the possibility of true contentment, and constitutes the supreme tragedy of their existence. In the end, Nature has its revenge against all the upstart creations of humanity–we must return to earth eventually–but in the Faustian case, because of the huge scales and forces involved, the exceptionally abject dissociation from nature, and the literally infinite gap between expectation and reality, this return is destined to be especially dramatic.
But even before outright large-scale collapse became a worry, Spengler recognized that the de-differentiation and expansion characteristic to Faustian civilization would by itself inflict profound costs at the personal and spiritual level. Many other thinkers have focused on these costs from varying directions and perspectives, coining terms such as “anomie” (Durkheim), “societies of control” (Deleuze), or “the homelessness of contemporary man” (Heidegger). Though these names differ in subtleties of context, they are all in essence concerned with the problem, unique to the past century and a half or so, of living in a world where systems have become megalithic, impersonal, and controlling, and the vast majority of people inevitably end up distanced or alienated from fundamental sources of belonging and meaning. In Spengler’s words,
“…now, since the eighteenth century, innumerable ‘hands’ work at things of which the real role in life (even as affecting themselves) is entirely unknown to them and in the creation of which, therefore, they have inwardly no share. A spiritual barrenness sets in and spreads, a chilling uniformity without height or depth.”
The inevitable result of this barrenness, he continues, is that
“The tension between work of leadership and work of execution has reached the level of a catastrophe. The importance of the former, the economic value of every real personality in it, has become so great that it is invisible and incomprehensible to the majority of the underlings. In the latter, the work of the hands, the individual is now entirely without significance. Only numbers matter. In the consciousness of this unalterable state of things, aggravated, poisoned, and financially exploited by egoistic orators and journalists, men are so forlorn that it is mere human nature to revolt against the role for which the machine (not, as they imagine, its possessors) earmarks most of them. There is beginning, in numberless forms – from sabotage, by way of strike, to suicide – the mutiny of the Hands against their destiny, against the machine, against the organized life, against anything and everything.”
Here, too, it’s hard to miss the relevance to present times, and most obviously and recently, the rage of the followers of Donald Trump; but Spengler’s insight suggests that those followers’ strident statism and hardly concealed disdain for foreign ideas and cultures are not just a mark of economic discontent, frustration with corruption, or the bewitchments of strongman politics–though they are of course that as well. Instead, perhaps the most important ingredient in the recent seemingly-abrupt advance of demagogic figures like Trump (both in the US and many other countries) may be an instinctive revolt against a system of impersonal, atomized, machine-conditioned living.
As the Faustian forms the background and basis for so much of our way of life and thought, it is for most people both difficult to discern it and disorienting if not threatening to critique it; as such, these facets of the problem are normally carefully passed over in silence, or reduced to terms of isolated (hence insignificant) individual grievance or technocratic (hence culturally sterile) policy tweaks. It’s also typical to neatly cap off any such references or reductions with a reassuring paean to the wonders of technology and growth–possibly coupled with a rueful boilerplate admission that these ideals, though in themselves impeccable, may be bungled in the implementation from time to time.
With all this in mind, I was astonished just recently to watch, on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show of all places, a surprisingly candid and probing discussion on a subject that seems unrelated, but is in fact deeply associated with these themes: the roots of post-traumatic stress disorder and high rates of depression and suicide in combat veterans after their return to civilian life.
Hayes’ guest was Sebastian Junger, a no-nonsense war correspondent and author, who was discussing his newest book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging”. Though I haven’t read the book, he appears to put forward two main theses. His first contention is already remarkable–for Junger proposes that the suffering of returning veterans may owe almost as much to the emotional deficiencies of modern life as it does to injuries and psychological damage in combat.
Junger’s line of thought goes like so: though extremely dangerous and stressful, life in a combat unit also creates extraordinarily strong and intimate interpersonal bonds among the members of that unit. By enduring harsh discipline, dangerous environments, and the constant possibility of death, soldiers stationed together for long periods come to rely on one another and enjoy a sense of shared purpose and mutual concern. This intimacy is so remarkable, actually, because many soldiers have never experienced anything like it in their earlier civilian lives; and when they return to civilian life, they realize for the first time that there is nothing on offer like the kind of personal concern or emotional ties that they came to know in the service.
It is often said that veterans have trouble “adjusting” to civilian life, but I had never considered how much unpacking that single word, “adjusting”, might really call for; like a good mindless Faustian, I had taken it for granted that the problem must lie with veterans’ emotional difficulties due to disturbing memories, or a certain inability to relinquish deeply ingrained military values.
But if Junger is right, there is another aspect, which is that the veterans feel profoundly the loss of that bonding and kinship, and returning home find their eyes newly opened to what is sorely lacking in civilian life. As Spengler might put it, the returning veterans are for the first time clearly confronted by the spiritual barrenness of the Faustian way of life (and realize, in a bitter irony, that they have risked their own lives to defend this barrenness).
In many ways, notes Junger, our current way of life is actually less happy that supposedly less developed societies–something borne out by stratospheric usage of psychiatric medication, for example. For example, in another interview, he states that “Modern society has some of the highest rates of depression. […] As wealth goes up, suicide goes up — they should be going the opposite direction and they don’t and that is because we have lost cohesion.” Conversely, Junger notes that many far poorer societies than the US still manage to be considerably happier, and that times of collective struggle, paradoxically, may even increase this happiness as people band together to solve a common problem, much as the soldier must bond with his platoon in order to make it through another tour.
It is here that Junger plunges even deeper into a second thesis, even more controversial than the first, but closely entailed by it: the inherent value of tribalism.
Tribalism gets a bad rap these days, in many ways deservedly, being seen as a primitive impulse that drives exclusion and violence. But from the foregoing discussion, we must also acknowledge that this disapproval is probably not exclusively based on humanitarian or pacifistic concern. For all its drawbacks, it is also true that tribalism, if only in fueling parochial and local interests, tends to stand against the machine, against the isolation and homogenization of life, and against the consolidation of a megalithic world-system–all trends which the Faustian mentality finds almost irresistible in its rush for infinitely expanding power and organization.
Tribalism remains hard to shake, and to Junger, it’s questionable whether we should really want to, at least completely. Living in fiercely devoted groups of modest size is how human beings got by for the overwhelming majority of our evolutionary history, and without wading too far into the fraught swamps of evolutionary psychology, it is reasonable to suppose that that remains in some sense more ingrained, more natural to us, than the Faustian mega-civilization.
Rather than an immense city of millions, a vast corporation, or a cyberspace of fleshless icons and digitized usernames, we tend to be most happy when dealing with a relatively small band of 30-70 people who are up close, accessible, and united in a common purpose or culture. Tribal unity, again in opposition to the drive for greater size and technical organization, is a fundamental source of belonging and meaning for human beings. It is social rocket fuel, a power that fills people with passion to belong and struggle together, but also to clash.
Of course, few things help sustain tribal identity more than a mutually hated enemy. Yet Junger is not dismissive of acceptance and tolerance in society, nor cavalier about the dangerous side of tribalism; rather he appears to be optimistic that the tribal could be integrated into modern life in some way, perhaps through a national program of mandatory public service such as is found in Israel.
Junger also connects the rise of divisive politicians such as Trump, and an increasingly harsh and contemptuous political discourse in this country, with the disgust and alienation many returning veterans feel. Having fought and suffered and experienced the extraordinary dedication of tribal existence, they are confronted by a homeland not only lacking meaning and unity, but riven with what seem to be petty differences displayed with great ostentation and rancor. The animosity and harsh language used against political opponents, in particular, increasingly do not sound like the dialogue of a people intimately connected in common identity and purpose. “These are the kinds of things you say about the enemy,” notes Junger.
This is not to say that Junger’s ideas don’t rate plenty of skepticism. His view of combat units as places of belonging and noble camaraderie unlike anything to be found in the civilian sphere, for example, or of war as a crucible that creates wonderful meaning for its participants, seem romanticized, if not propagandistic. There is also the shade of authoritarianism that inevitably arises when calls of “unity” are pitted against “disrespectful” free expression. But even if he offers only one piece of a very complex puzzle, Junger has done an important service in daring to point out that the emptiness of so much of what we claim as superior in our way of life–and that a calling we normally think of as harsh and unsparing may harbor a kind of antidote, a richness and meaning that is dying out elsewhere.
If we can rediscover that richness, set aside our tragic quest for infinity, enjoy a locally grounded sense of belonging, all while agreeing to live and let live with our neighbors and the earth itself, that could form the core vision of a post-Faustian world.
As for Spengler, some may point out that his prediction of Western-Faustian civilization’s collapse did not exactly come to pass. But that would be to forget that with the outbreak of the Second World War, shortly after Spengler’s death in 1936, it very nearly did. If the writings and ideas of this strange prewar prophet are coming to resonate with the times once again–however uncomfortable they may be–it may be a sign to pay closer attention.