Paul Douglas Fenn*
THE DEATH OF ENLIGHTENMENT
1Enlightenment England and France imitated Rome, not their own pre-Christian past – and not ancient Greece, which most resembled it – as the single viable alternative to European Christianity. The poets of imperial Rome, not Athens, served as models for the voice of the Modern. As such, the Enlightenment pitted the failed philosopher-intellectuals of famed republicanism against unprecedented empire, cosmopolitanism against localism. False identification with the conqueror as a liberator has led us down the path of cowardly reason, in which the meaningfulness of language separates from the power of language: divorced are humanities and sciences. It is a crisis not just of legitimacy, but of civil society: post white flight, post GATT/NAFTA/TPP, post mergers and acquisitions, post deregulation, and post-union. What is left of post-war America in the fire sale of its industries and the communities that ran them? Their inability to cooperate under imperial prosperity. Capitalism has failed as Communism failed: each delivering hideous, destructive, technology-centric gigantism. Democratic governments fail because the people are insufficiently loyal to cooperate in self-governance. Thus a contextualization is needed for a theory of democracy, to circumscribe it: a theory that would overcome the errors of Karl Marx, yes, but also Diderot and the Enlightenment, also Machiavelli and the Renaissance, and also Cicero of the Roman Republic. A new distinction is needed.
Accordingly: from Cicero before Christ to Bayle during the persecution of the Huguenots and from Diderot before the American Revolution to Neitzsche after the Franco-Prussian War, and from Adorno after World War II to Hyppolite and the existentialism and postmodernism that followed the narrow defeat of the Third Reich, the Enlightenment thinkers of Europe and America generally over-esteemed their critiques of culture and power, while under-esteeming their own role in the new civil society they were creating by means of polemics: the action of their writing. At center of this neglect was an under-developed strategy of critical locution, a formal, unconscious conservatism of scriptural practice.
Cicero represented the idealized combination of philosophy with politics to the Philosophes, but this was a failed example of someone who ultimately proved incompetent and lost out to the August force of empire. The Philosophes imagined a practice of Enlightenment, but limited themselves to a range of locution between the Machiavellian-like posture of advisors to power, or else desperately farcical and didactic expositions of power: patriotic advice or farcical negative critique for those out of princely favor. Limited to minions or betrayers of the powerful, academics, like the priests they so hated, have gradually submitted as a class to specialization within their humanistic arts, and genuflected before the limits of a certified, circumscribed expertise. Reduced to a silo of mere guild masters, academic intellectuals have restricted their societal role to degree-certified statements of authorized knowledge, often policing and seeking punishment of colleagues who exceed those limits in their writings.
Hypostasized in the figure of the failed philosopher statesman, the Enlightenment has never really exceeded the pious but impotent aspirations of Cicero. While sound in principle, the idea of achieving philosophical virtue in political action is part and parcel of the failure of Enlightenment. Before it, Renaissance Humanism and the empire itself lacked the necessary depth to bring about a greater power in language, beyond the platitudes of Plebeian vs. ethnic Roman rights, or the injustices of Communism vs. Capitalism. This pageant of abstract equality and fanatical liberty – this fraud “comrade,” that fraud “entrepreneur”--, these are the coin of liberating empires.
As science found rapprochement with religion, Enlightenment philosophy turned against itself, culminating in postmodernity, which is a catharsis of theory and an effort to embrace the darkness of the unknowable, a “Re-darkenment.” This child of the Celtic enlightenment, now in a second Dark Age precipitated by the cowardice and ennui of The Intellectual under American imperialism, was first science, then whittled down to just technology. Unchallenged and hermetically islanded from all knowledge, Religion re-emerged historically from within the dialectical silence of Enlightenment’s empty husk.
As philosophy faded in the esteem of a science-obsessed generation, science was washed of ethics and followed a path defined by the usefulness of technology to commerce and war. An eager weapon-maker, humankind embraced a computational idea of itself, of the brain, of psychology, and reconceived the self as a system that can and should be managed and protected. Like the ancient scholastics, the widget coder type of computer engineer pursues reason for the sake of God and not for the pursuit of knowledge, which he considers inferior to belief in God, since such belief requires no justification. Frankenstein is bested by his monster, the possibility of artificial life taking on more importance than naturally living organisms.
This is the peculiar shared fetishism of colonialism and technology. The “cyborg” society is the fanatical dream of viral self-organization, latent throughout society from contemporary social networking fetishism to the anti-ideological idealism of the Occupy movement. Georg Lukacs argued that the “commodity form,” or the reduction of all things, including people, to exchangeable commodities, explained the disembodiment of proletarian consciousness among workers. Imitating the Disruptive theory of the New Left, the Occupists resuscitated a nonviolent version of the direct action and flash mobsterism reminiscent of the General Strike myth-making of Georges Sorel, soft crowd control strategies only imagined by Gustav Le Bon, and a new crusade of artificial radicalism `a la Silicon Valley technophiles’ unending declarations of “disruptive” technologies. Lacking respect for theory –particularly the most important, which is political theory--, these techno-philic monks and fetishists of spectacle, these true believers in groupthink, forswear any form of intellectual leadership, and avoid ideology as if it were a social disease. They are like machine smashers, only they smash history and Enlightenment. Unreflective of Anabaptist and other religious revival traditions in America, they are unashamed of and un-ironic about their political illiteracy. They show an extreme naivety about matters as fundamental to Enlightenment as democracy, politics, or history. Indeed, the mass deny the need for any ideology, believing themselves to lack one, preferring a steady state of Byzantine political correctness to interruptions of a carefully managed, obviously bearable lightness of being – likely as not medicated. The educated classes of America have in this manner been re-barbarized through endless revisions and renunciations of the known past, and endless adjustments and strokes of collective amnesia.
Consequently, the discussion of Enlightenment must, on the one hand, pass from talk of the masses’ failure as the Marxist subject of history; and, on the other hand, avoid talk of the so-called “elites.” It must remain unfinished in the no-man’s land of The Intellectual, who is neither common nor elite. What are we to make of this no-man’s land of independent thinkers, unqualified in their opinions, resented by spouse and colleague alike for their arrogance? Is not this Intellectual --a minority across all races, religions, sexes, proclivities and pathologies--, the “subject” of history? Is s/he not the agency of all historical protagonism and of so-called “critical mass”? Resentment against strong opinions is the milieu of a repressive, imperialist civil society that condones so much violence that it cannot tolerate the uncertified declarations of unauthorized thought. Paranoia rules the deafening silence. The more silent we become, the more violent the repression becomes.
The spectacle of the dandy causes fascism. This has long been the key problem of intellectual leadership. The decadence of creative thought lies in missing the tension required to proceed ethically through life – to be wise, not just clever – and provide an example to others of what it means to be virtuous. The illiterate, the uneducated, the backward, common man of the world recognizes this decadence of the dandy; it is why he does not trust intellectuals. It is the core failure of trust that makes enlightened leadership impossible in post-tribal politics and civil society. Democracy theory fails to the great extent that intellectuals lack power, said Cicero and Diderot alike. Without power, no virtue, thus no command of loyalty: unleveraged thought makes for weak imperatives.
Enlightenment knowledge was born in monasteries from monks who, although illiterate in their own languages, tried to read ancient texts written in Arabic, Hebrew or Greek, and rewrote them in Latin, and later into the vulgar languages. Modern democracy has a similarly indirect, non-patrilineal origin. It was born from manufacturers who got out from under the medieval landowner-warrior class through trade, banking and the proliferation of currencies: the negotiation of mortgages with military landowners and municipal vaults and city halls to guard the mortgage documents against seizure or vandalism by landowners. Enlightenment has always been threatened by the fact that European democracy, as Marx observed, rests upon the rights of commercial enterprise against princely power, and not on the ideal of the meek versus the high and mighty, translated as popular rights against commercial interest. The failures of Marx’s grandchildren of the Third International to organize workers, and their loss of proletarian political consciousness to National Socialism and rightwing imperial governments – not only in Germany but throughout the world up to this very day--, casts its shadow over the Enlightenment in the twenty-first century, realizing the Dark Age feared by Marxist intellectuals in the decades following World War II, and contextualizing the resistance movements as well as lesser movements seeking to bring about political change through a voluntary change in consciousness, like EST, Synanon or Krishna: diverse repositories of absurdly failed anti-theories.
The threat to Enlightenment is evident not just in the failure of democracy today in the U.S., which is as palpable at the federal level of the U.S. congress as it is at the state level of each and every one of the fifty states, but also in the particular degeneration of American civil society. Ours is a society that has been delivered into identity politics and celebrity gossip, but is illiterate in the nomenclature of war, natural resources, and power; it is a society that has grown ignorant compared to nineteenth century and early twentieth century Americans, and it is growing exponentially more ignorant by the year. Americans are a people defined by government-promoted globalization, geographic displacement, and regional civil disintegration. We vote, yes; but only a little under half of those who can vote by legal right do so. We Americans do not discuss our politics seriously in everyday life, nor do we take our voting rights and responsibilities seriously. We vote like we go to church: in order to avoid feeling bad. We are antisocial, and just want to be left alone to stew in our ignorance, consumption, entertainment, and chemical oblivion. Indeed, Americans are the most politically ignorant of modern peoples. With other nations buying into Pax Americana quickly joining in this civic and cultural darkness, we are confronted today with an imperial eclipse of democracy, which has devolved back into an idolatrous state, devoid of historical consciousness, paranoid, dissembling, indolent, incoherent and utterly manageable by the corporate media.
The spectacle of the dandy is matched only by the spectacle of this devolution of civil society into an idolatrous state. In return he is replaced by bureaucrats and nonprofit issue advocates, priestly castes and surrogate experts who have dissected and remarketed the philosopher’s gaze into countless professions and specialties. These post-dandies are lesser professors who preside over ever-smaller niches of contemporary history.
In this brave new darkness, the only subject Americans will discuss seriously is sports, as if to undertake a diluted form of patriotism. At issue in this comic seriousness is a fake cultural conformism, whereby the sports fan pretends to be a moral member of society by supporting the local team. This is, of course, an empty ritual of loyalty. It is a new kind of pagan relic-worship. Similar absurdity is shared obviously by soccer fans in Europe and throughout its former footballer colonies. Delocalized by league gigantism with foreign sports-mercenaries, Europe apes the imperialist location-neutrality or placelessness of Pax Americana, reflecting the prestige of empire with none of the honor of a sovereign people: thus its incessant cheating, the antithesis of good sportsmanship, like slave warriors at the Roman circus.
Or perhaps Americans have fallen down to the ancient European level. This violent over-identification with games during an imperial maelstrom, and the sodden American former longstanding standard of anti-imperialism, for which the nation was traditionally known worldwide, from the American Revolution to Eisenhower’s anti-imperialist play during the Suez crisis, is nothing more than America imitating European imperialism: these orphans of the Hippodrome. Forgotten are the pronouncements of the Philosophes who led the rebellion and theorized a new kind of state designed to resist imperialism and tyranny.
America’s recently remembered past is today forgotten. This amnesia goes well beyond the imagination of even the most ambitious and sinister social engineers. The effect has been a dismemberment of American civil society and the death of political literacy even among the “elites.” Dandyish and unserious, the Enlightenment in America today is recognizably untrustworthy. It is why the Arabs have turned against America. It is also why Europe has lost its way, following a cypher. To awaken this Cold War fool may be as hard as shelving the spies and assassins of the Russian dystopia.
Unreformed since the "victory" of the Cold War in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was breached, America has evolved into an imperial pattern of cultural decadence in which gay rights or abortion on the Left, and abortion or capital punishment on the right, trump war and trade in common civil political discourse. Reality TV has taken over. The left apes rightwing culture war, as if to rally a new post-gender majority based on unlimited new freedoms. In the influential “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” Berkeley-based Obama advisor (the linguist Lakoff) promoted a linguistically based tactical Democratic response to America’s Neoconservative culture warrior crowd controllers: Republicans carry the archetype of punishing father, ergo Democrats should act like nurturing mothers! Obama completed this total schism of the bicameral mind.
Reagan and Thatcher convinced the intellectuals that acting trumps action. The theory of the “Great Communicators” succeeds in this case by suppressing actual discussion of policy or proposed actions of state. No one talks about what the government should do, and then tries to actually do it. Without such deliberate action, there can be no democracy, only a sham democracy, a spectacle and show, where the “great communicators” act out their scripted parts. This emphasis on play-acting reveals the error of the “charismatic leader” theory.
Meanwhile, the traditional American resistance to the British Empire has collapsed into a bland, British centrism - Clinton-Gore-Kerry-Obama alongside Tony Blair and English minions in the New Labor party. The substance at hand amnesically disappears as hypocrites assume the mantle of power under a confidence game of epochal post-history-speak based on imperial ambitions since the Cold War ended in 1989. Like the Hippodrome riots in Constantinople, this victory lap of neoliberalism and domestic culture war has spun out of control into a civil society that passively supports constant medium-scale warfare all over the world by the United States. Apart from bankrupting the domestic economy, this imperial excess has soiled the American Revolutionary standard of republican anti-imperialism, and profoundly downgraded democratic legitimacy among all the world’s nations who, when the face the United States, do not encounter a champion of liberty and democracy, but just another empire alongside China or Russia. Like Bradley Manning turned Chelsea Manning, America has trivialized its Cold War victory, permanently harmed the democratic and republican ideas it once represented, and compromised the ability of any nation on earth to keep those standards we have established. This in turn exposes all peoples of the world to constant fear of warfare, terrorism, pestilence, and starvation, and keeps us in a state of irrational, socially generated fear and an indifferent assent to violence against foreign peoples and ecosystems.
The postmodern obsession with culture and identity legalization during periods of imperial violence has its history; it is the pattern of Julius Caesar’s imperial populism giving equal rights to foreigners and displaced former slaves or war casualties, extending rights to imperial subjects in order to survive politically against opposition by locals: in the case of Julius Caesar, the Romans from Roman families who had created the Roman Republic and made it great by military fealty. Franchising the idea of Roman citizenship, and distributing invaded lands among mercenary leaders, bought temporary support from the plebeians; but this politically expedient strategy ultimately dealt a permanent blow to local Roman culture. Over centuries, it led to the moral evacuation of Roman republicanism into toxic decadence, dissipation of loyalty and organic leadership, and ultimately society-wide indefensibility against invaders they had once cowed. This was finally the transition of Rome from a nation that had emerged under Carthage and established its independent power based on an organically formed republican loyalty proudly reminiscent of ancient Greece into a nation that embraced empire. In this fashion, Rome came to resemble the Carthaginian plutocracy it had destroyed, undermining its own organic civil society and becoming dependent on mercenary armies in lieu of local men, which proved increasingly indefensible against attacks of the Goths, Lombards, Vandals and other hosts of imperial enemies and oppressed subject peoples. The same imperial pattern repeats today. Must we in the United States of America now fear the rage of a dominated world freshly armed with a proliferation of American nuclear weapons and American drone technologies, but unconverted to principles of democracy and self-government, or worse, theocracies and Fu Manchus?
Without loyalty, there can be no virtue, without civil virtue, no democracy.
The denaturing of society through imperial populism is the poison that killed Rome, and this same poison has infected America. America has been under its toxic spell, in fact, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Specifically, it has transformed America’s left into identity politicians devoid of historical consciousness. Anti-intellectual, American democracy bans plastic bags, approves gay marriage and transgender schools, or bans abortion, approves mass imprisonment and capital punishment. But our society demurs from serious governing. It has forgotten the exercise of ancient powers to protect and benefit citizens and local economies, sovereignty and sustainability. This juice of common life is not sweet enough for us. White flight, financial globetrotting, and corporate tax evasion have led to the abandonment of the common life. The political class reflects this indolent ennui; self-trivialized by imperial centralization of political prestige, and like Communist municipal governments under Soviet communism, America’s identity politicians are not links of an organically formed democratic chain of local politics, but placeholder stooges chosen for their conformism by political cartels. Our political leaders are a parasitic guild of party advisors and consultants ambitious for elite acceptance from the rich and powerful.
Encumbered by 150 years of imperial disempowerment of state and local governments in the continental U.S., trade agreements, unfunded mandates, and preemptions, even those few able and willing to pursue the public business are circumscribed by state laws, charter amendments, and federal requirements for funding upon which they are utterly dependent, in many cases with only 5-10% of an American City’s annual budget being “discretionary” or under local control – the other 95% being federal and state mandated uses. This practice has turned American municipalities into miniaturized Banana Republics, with their hands out, burning the free money they can get, but having no actual control over the destiny of their cities.
In the absence of real democracy, we have “bread and circuses” in the global electronic arena of terrorism and constant warfare. Invertebrate and oversized, like the Soviet Union in the final years of the 1980’s, America has now become obsessed with the potential threat of imagined intellectual radicals. A universal spying society has quickly emerged, with the surveillance of millions of American citizens by as many paid security “experts,” political targeting through ongoing collusion between spying agencies and energy corporations to target climate change activists like myself, and with an American president personally involved in routine hand-selection of radicals, whether citizens or not, and living here or not, for imprisonment or assassination by drones. Meanwhile, American public opinion is 99.9999% brainwashed by a cocktail of history-free education, a print and TV media Shanghaied by plutocratic mergers and acquisitions, downsized, and de-unionized.
Once abstract, the comparison of America to its vanquished Cold War enemy, Russia, is now palpable. A nation utterly bereft of radicalism is spied upon for radicalism, an inquisition or catharsis as the few remnants of socialist governments in former Yugoslavia, Bagdad, and now Damascus, are bombed. Arguably, both phenomena are but a witch-hunt for any remnant of socialism, whether at home in the U.S. or anywhere in the world. This is not to endorse the governments of those nations, but the pattern is less Crusade, more Cold War: not a so-called “Clash of Civilizations,” but an imperial imposition of commerce under Neoliberal rules of “openness” and novel corporate political rights set above rights of local citizens in foreign countries.
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