Seeing Into the Future
by J. R. Nyquist, Global Analyst. March 19, 2010
There is an intriguing Chapter in Wilhelm Roepke's 1948 book, The Moral Foundations of Civil Society, in which he writes about those nineteenth century thinkers who anticipated the crisis of the twentieth century. According to Roepke, "It appears that in all great crises of world history most people utterly deceive themselves as to where they stand, just as if Providence had drawn a veil over the impending disaster." Though a society inwardly crumbles, an "optimistic self deception" prevails -- attended by "that astounding superficiality of diagnosis with which so many of us have judged the state of the world" in the past. How slowly we grasp the meaning of facts. How tenaciously we struggle against a "disagreeable awakening." How unready we are to admit that we have built our society upon an avalanche.
Such is Roepke's metaphor, penned less than four years after Hitler's death. What a terrible awakening it was, indeed! The seeming victorious Germany, under a popular leader, fell to a series of stinging defeats in a war that brought death and destruction to Europe, and reduced Roepke's Germany to rubble. Roepke said that the Second World War was due to "a collapse of our society." Furthermore, he said, it was "our duty to take account of the nature and fundamental causes of the catastrophe." Under Hitler, society had dissolved into a "mass collectivist formation" from whence it rushed "blindly into the fire." How are we to account for one of the most civilized nations succumbing to a half-educated and half-baked demagogue? "While we are seeking an answer to this question," noted Roepke, "let us not forget the pessimists and prophets of a bygone age who pointed out the danger more or less clearly...." He then lists a number of great writers and thinkers, including Goethe and Dostoyevsky and John Stuart Mill.
Roepke then quotes John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, where Mill explains that the individual has become lost in a crowd: "The only power deserving of the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses." According to Mill, the masses do not get their opinions from "Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them ... on the spur of the moment through the newspapers." Roepke then quotes from a private letter of the Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt, written in 1881: "One day odious capitalism from above and the hungry urge from below will crash into one another like two trains on the same line." According to Burckhardt, Russia was headed for a political upheaval of some kind, an upset due to developments in "Power Politics." In a flash of insight, Burckhardt saw that "we shall experience an epoch when every stage of muddle must be gone through until at length ... a genuine power will arise which will make short work with voting rights, sovereignty of the people, material wellbeing, industry, etc. and will stand upon small ceremony. For this will be the inevitable end of the State based on the rule of law once it has succumbed to mere numbers and the consequences."
What we are living in today is a mass society, where individual thought and expression has been diminished, and where individuality itself has been circumscribed in ways we do not fully appreciate. Today the individual submits and gives over, again and again, to strangers and nobodies who happen appear on television. Even before the advent of television, Roepke warned that "the individual being [has been] absorbed ever more in an amorphous mass." The process is best described by the word "atomization," where the family and clan structures have been ground into a "mere sandheap of individuals." As isolated grains of sand, these individuals "are devoid of any real inner solidarity and any roots or connection with social standing and milieu, without a genuine sense of community and without leadership on the part of a real and responsible authority standing above the mass."
This is an extraordinary and accurate statement of our situation today, insofar as nothing has changed since the mid-twentieth century, but only worsened in this regard. Nietzsche had written, in the nineteenth century, that newspapers represented a kind of corruption of human thought and sensibility. The medium of television purges thought altogether, replacing it with seductive imagery. The process by which Hitler took power in Germany has become, in itself, a medium for alleged discourse (which is, to be sure, nothing of the kind). "A society of this kind," warned Roepke, "has lost the inner and organic character of the genuine and spontaneous community, and the more it is lacking in a firm homogeneity the more it will be held rigidly together by the rivets of the modern bureaucrat and centralist state."
The coming together of man and woman, as the basis of the family unit, is what Roepke called "the original and imperishable basis of every higher community." Authority itself is grounded on parental authority. If you want to destroy society, destroy the connection between man and women; then watch as parental authority crumbles to nothing, dissolving into what we now call "family court" and its predatory legion of attorneys, head-shrinkers and attending child welfare agents. Here authority has become merely functional, under the auspices of functionaries. It is unreal, and thoroughly evil. Such is merely coordination, for the purposes of "divide and conquer." The resulting loot is afterwards redistributed, including the children. The larger community is helpless to prevent this ongoing destruction of lives, but averts its gaze and promptly changes the channel. The structure of society itself is being dissolved, so that the soul of the child never experiences genuine authority. What prevails on all sides is a usurped authority that basis itself upon common fraud and mass delusion. The child grows without inner rules, tyrannized by the gibberish of a bureaucracy that pretends to care.
If European civilization underwent a process of atomization in the nineteenth century that led to Hitler, the process we are undergoing today must necessarily produce something worse than Hitler. The individual experiences so-called society today as a chaotic lack of any relationship to anything, to any sense of belonging. People are increasingly divorced from the ties of family, occupation and neighborhood. "This deterioration," wrote Roepke, "is accompanied by processes of decay and dissolution in the spiritual and moral spheres, in the soul of each individual, in his upbringing and development ... in his ethical outlook ... and in the imponderable things of spiritual values, belief and reverence." Under this state of society, children are not properly taken care of, and elders are disrespected.
Do we realize where we are headed with all this? Do we know that this is, in some sense, a real and tangible dissolution of our society and its civilization? The fact is, weapons of mass destruction are remarkably convenient to the circumstances. And worse yet: Though a society inwardly crumbles, an "optimistic self deception" prevails -- attended by "that astounding superficiality of diagnosis with which so many of us have judged the state of the world" in the past.
© 2010 J. R. Nyquist