What some called the period beginning at the end of World War II and ending in the early 1990s, at the fall of the Soviet Union-the Cold War-others, with wider-ranging views, called the Atomic Age. Not only was industrial life irrevocably transformed on a scale coincident with the turn from stone to bronze, with its polymers, transistors and transmitters, and space travel, its plastics and its consumables; so was the concept of collective fear which centered on the atom bomb. Einstein once quipped that a war after World War III would be fought with sticks and stones. Theodor Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics that the march of human history leads from the slingshot, with our warring ways from infancy onward, to the megaton bomb: if there truly was some internal logic guiding the events of history, it was the horseman, one of four, who called himself War. The Bible references these harbingers of doom because nomadic horsemen were the natural enemies of settled agrarian life, of course, and any literal reading of a mythopoetic book fits one for the dunce’s cap.
But whether one reads history in terms of metaphor or cold logic, the abundance of war, and the deficit of peace, provides its silhouette every time. Human life is a tragedy on par with Schopenhauer’s imagination, only its nihilism manifests itself in the machinery of violence far more often than with the depression of its psyche. Contrary to the wishful thinking of conservatives and liberals alike, our affairs have ever been thus. Rather than homo sapiens, or the rational animal of Aristotle, we might better be referred to as the warmakers of the universe, part affliction and part sure foresight. But the fashion these days is not to cower before an unseen bomb, or sniff the air for the reek of mustard gas. The fear of this century is dispersed, unsure, sprawled from the subject outward in every direction. Fear, itself, has been decentered, overdetermined: it is not a point of attention; it is an economy unto itself. I confess I am a fearful man and thus a mere example of the modern human condition.
We in the West tend to think of ourselves as insulated from this fear, or at least, the “real fear” which we are constantly told haunts the rest of the world, from the Global South on to the far coasts of Russia. We are berated and burdened with a media complex built to instill a horror we find all too natural; good news is always out of place, after all, and so it is hardly news at all. We are told we have a perfect system-or, more often, “the best system possible”-and are lambasted when we offer alternatives, or, a worse sin, borrow lines of thinking from our former enemies. It is difficult to contemplate how much of our material economy is driven by fear and manufactured consent-our guns, our medicines, our clothes meant to sell our bodies on the sexual marketplace as fast and often as possible before we expire, our self-help books and child amphetamines lest our offspring fail how we think we failed. But these are not real concerns-they are First World Problems, we are told. The chastisement of the discontent knows no bounds. “If you don’t like America,” our right ears hear, “then try something else. Go be a communist. Don’t come running back.”
Leszek Kolakowski’s magisterial tome Main Currents of Marxism explores the philosophical underpinnings of the Second World’s chief manifestation during the 20th century, under which, as the saying then went, “a sixth of the world was enthralled.” Kolakowski’s mission for the book was, like Karl Popper’s, to dismantle the humanist elements some Marxists claimed for their doctrine and to prove that the only end result of the dialectical logic was authoritarian catastrophe. Kolakowski lived through a communist regime or two and was possessed of enough erudition and experience to know what he was talking about, but the oddest thing about the Main Currents is that he might just as easily have written a book on the capitalist West. After all, he begins the book with a series of explications on the Christian mystic tradition that informed the Middle Ages from the ground up. Kolakowski outlines the Platonic philosophy and then moves to Plotinus-two of the chief pagan influences on what later became Catholicism, and thus the Protestant West-and from there explains how the mysticism of Meister Eckhart influenced Nicholas of Cusa and Jacob Boehme.
From that vantage point he moves on to the Enlightenment (the movement in thought upon which the United States and Western Europe were defined and redefined), which, in its own way, gave birth to its radical wing with the French Revolution and, later, Marxism, which combined the age-old desire for liberation embodied in the German peasantry with an international literacy that culminated in passionate revolt the world over. Kolakowski neglects to mention that such a philosophical heritage gave birth to the modern liberal capitalist state. Indeed, liberal capitalism inserted itself into the human drama well before Marx ever dashed off a single polemic. Of course, some aspects of Marxism sound as silly as the Christian-socialist counterparts Marx attacked during the course of his career. Matter does not balance on a dialectic (we can blame Engels for this perversion of natural science); but human relations, as evidenced by history, certainly do. But the theology of the capitalist state is perhaps far more rife with the smell of bullshit than Marxism ever was. One need only compare Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung with any ghost-written presidential autobiography, or compare a stolen election to one which was rigged from the beginning, or measure the equity in death-tolls between American intervention abroad and the communist famines. The crimes of the one superpower might not offer a true equivalence to the crimes of the other, but they are prime examples of the unity of opposites.
The Left compares the American prison system to the Soviet gulags for a reason. Contrary to popular opinion, prisons in America do not offer superlative healthcare or education, and are certainly not just vacation centers for those who deviate from the workforce. They are dehumanizing, terrible places where suicide and murder are the most common causes of death; where, as Michel Foucault wrote inDiscipline and Punish, even the soul itself is disciplined. That America’s prisons lack a political character, unlike the gulags, is a myth: they are the structural offshoot of poverty, and poverty amid splendor is always a political topic. We do with the poor what the USSR did with its dissenters. Fear poverty, and you ipso facto fear prison. Once tagged with the stamp of prison-lest we forget each prisoner is assigned a number-normal life is impossible, and pariahship is made permanent. The American character is disobedient, it is written in our history and our popular opinions of ourselves, it is supposed to inform our democracy and its debates. But real disobedience only ever lands one in prison: a black-market slingshot-or in political office: the megaton bomb.
I write this on the anniversary of 9/11, the day when America’s Generation X was reminded that no man is an island, and that the safety of the industrialized world was never guaranteed. Of course, such events had happened before, dating way back to the 18th and 19th century, when Thomas Jefferson launched his campaign against the Muslim slavers of Tripoli. But the fear of attack was reborn in the information age. Nevermind that the poor have always suffered such fear in America and abroad, or that more people have died of unwarranted police homicide in the decade and a half following the collapse of the Twin Towers than died in them or in their debris. The comfortable middle classes reacted in shock and supported a war of intervention and nation-building that culminated in the death of millions of people in the Middle East-in our paranoid style, we punish terrorism with democide-and ruined America’s reputation abroad, perhaps irrevocably. But the odd thing about those attacks was the element of fear it instilled into the national apparatus. We turned our fear from the personal sphere-are we attractive, intelligent, wealthy enough?-to the sphere of politics: are we safe, paranoid, armed enough? In short, we carved the national psyche down to the same core it always shared with the failed states we condemn and compete against.
The doomsday psychosis is preached in Iran and the Bible Belt alike. Writers like the left-theologian Chris Hedges have well documented the group he calls American fascists, whose desires for religious domination, borne of fear and loathing, mirror exactly the apocalyptic tune of the extreme Islamists they despise on the other side of the globe. Such ironic back-and-forth, modern in its particulars but ancient in its origins, speaks much to the warfare drive which seems innate to the human being. Adorno’s march from the slingshot to the megaton bomb is not only a wry commentary on the century preceding our own, but also a riddle as to whether or not our period lies closer to the slingshot or the bomb on the historical spectrum. What wonder, were we across that line, but not that the chaos we willingly consume would nudge us on?