The Revenge of Unreason.
The real battle of our age is not Right vs. Left, but Enlightenment vs. Counter-Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment is losing.
During the Weimar Republic, a US journalist with the impressive name of Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker wrote a bestseller called “Germany, Nazi or Communist?” which portrayed the country’s future as a stark choice between these extremes. It was to become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as having lost faith in both capitalism and democracy after the great crash of 1929, these two radical ideologies also presented themselves to the public as the only possible solutions to the ailments of society. Furthermore went out of their way to paint their respective nemesis as an absolute evil that they would protect them from. To this end, they deformed language to present reasonable arguments against them made by moderates as evidence of the omnipresence and pervasiveness of their enemies, continually upping the levels of hysteria and sense of urgency to scare people into their clutches. In other words, they needed each other to animate their respective nightmares, and to this end shared a common enemy; truth itself.
This comes as no surprise if we consider both fascism and communism are intellectual heirs of the Counter-Enlightenment and have for centuries been trying to pull the projects of empiricism and scientific scrutiny back into the abyss of unreason. When Enlightenment thinkers first emerged in the late 17th and 18th centuries, they sought to undermine dogma, superstition and the divine right of kings with critical thought and the application of Reason. Its opponents — the aristocracy and the clergy — saw instead something fundamentally dangerous and a threat to social stability. With the Enlightenment came the notion that Royal authority was not divinely ordained, and that the common people should have a say in the running of the country. Its high-minded ideals of common “humanity” were corrosive to ideas of class, caste and knowing one’s place. Royalist Antoine do Rivarol wrote that;
“From the day when the monarch consults his subjects, sovereignty is as though suspended… When people cease to esteem, they cease to obey. A general rule: peoples whom the king consults begin with vows and end with wills of their own.”
It was an era that gave us the terminology “left wing” and “right wing” — referring to the Enlightenment-educated bourgeoisie and the aristocratic elite respectively after their meeting at the French National Assembly. Soon, though, it became clear that this dichotomy would not hold, as after these tensions ruptured into Revolution in 1789, a project which began as an attempt to found a society based on Enlightenment principles itself degenerated into authoritarianism, dogma and mass murder. This taught us an early lesson that the tendencies the Enlightenment sought to combat are much more insidious than any one religion, power structure or ideology and represent the surface stirrings of much deeper cultural vortices.
Both fascism and communism, and later Counter-Enlightenment forces such as postmodernism, still rely on the same mythological structures that have characterised the West since late antiquity, and as we will see in this series, represent the afterlife of Christianity. Although today obscured behind several layers of quasi-secularised and pseudo-scientific jargon, they are still driven by these mythical visions of utopias at either end of time; the lost Eden of the past and a Kingdom of Heaven that awaits in the future. The spirit of the French Revolution and its eschatological ecstasy of wiping the slate clean was itself rooted in these ancient patterns.
Ruins of the the world-to-come
Contemporary socialist and communist movements are the descendants of Christian thinkers and sects that actively sought to bring about an earthly paradise, such as the Taborites, the Anabaptists of Munster and the True Levellers — not to mention the early monasteries of Shenute and Anthony the Great. All attempted with varying levels of success to implement fully communist societies as a means to create a vision of heaven-on-earth of complete equality and harmony (with more than a dash of top down authoritarianism). As late as the 18th and 19th centuries, various thinkers tried to reimagine future utopian societies inspired by the Christian world-to-come, such as the Étienne Cabet’s Icarian movement, the mystically inspired Saint-Simonians and the libidinal bureaucracy of Charles Fourier. For a time had some success in establishing communes in the United States, but these earthly utopias all withered after being exposed to the harsh weather of human nature.
Marx and Engels had scientific pretensions when they tried to fuse the communist ideas of the Icarian and Saint-Simonians with the dialectical ideas of Hegel and economics of David Ricardo, and at least attempted to frame their Counter-Enlightenment eschatology as part of the Enlightenment. They rubbished the idea of “utopian” communism in favour of their “scientific” version, but in functional terms, it was a rebrand the age-old Christian vision with a different intellectual facade. The great battle at the end of time remained — the glorious revolution — as was the egalitarian world-to-come, although the details of which were notoriously vague and its implementation remained in a state of transitory permanence.
In the post-war period, particularly after the catastrophic failures of the Khmer Rouge, Stalin and Mao, the torch of Marxism was passed to the post-structuralist and postmodernist thinkers. Unlike the early Marxists, they had no scruples about positioning themselves in clear opposition to Enlightenment humanism and Reason. Indeed, despite the prominent place of the Counter-Enlightenment political cults of fascism and communism in the horrors of the 20th century, the Enlightenment was blamed by one of poststructuralism’s founders, Claude Lévi-Strauss;
“All the tragedies we have lived through, first with colonialism, then with fascism, then with concentration camps, all this has taken shape in opposition or contradiction with so-called humanism… but I would say almost as its natural continuation.”
The new great project was to destroy the rational social structures built since the Enlightenment. Foucault advocated at the end of Madness and Civilisation a “sovereign enterprise of Unreason” against established, logical power structures. In his thinking all social institutions and language itself are “structures of domination” that need to be liquidated. For Foucault, these were epistimes, a rebooted version of Marxism’s ideology, and the only thing that differentiates rivals epistimes are which has power over the other to become the authors of consensus reality. Any notion of empirical truth was simply a matter of who had power over whom, and as such Foucault equated sanity with conformity and submission to the prevailing epistime, and those who fail to conform are carted off to the asylum and the prison. As such, he advocated the destruction of the entire legal and prison systems. In 1968, addressing a group of Maoists, he suggested revolution;
“can only take place with the radical elimination of the judicial apparatus, and anything which could reintroduce the penal apparatus, anything which could reintroduce its ideology surreptitiously to creep back into popular practices, must be banished.”
Derrida, concerned that his pun-intensive project of “deconstructing” literature to find hidden meanings was not politically engaged enough, shifted his attention to “deconstruct” the legal system. In The Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority he argued that universal, rational and mutually understood laws were opposed to justice, because universal principles could not be applied to all specific “singularities”. For there to be justice, in Derrida’s eyes, there could be no laws and as such he was advocating an extra-judicial and revelatory form of “justice”. In keeping with his disbelief that “phallologocentrism” (rational, male, logical) systems could ever make sense of the world, his writing aimed at the at the very foundations of Reason. But beneath the linguistic obscurantism lay the Marxist / Christian visions of the world-to-come, now rebranded as the “democracy to come”.
Despite the dreamy talk about total equality, these projects continually birthed new hierarchies, and their visions of egalitarian utopia are forever postponed either to the afterlife or the infinitely receding future. The love of riches, property and power are simultaneously disdained yet inevitably seized and centralised. This was true all the way from the Church Fathers and the Anabaptists all the way to the Bolsheviks. Today’s youthful and idealistic Silicon Valley technologists, so evangelical about equality and eager to “move fast and break things”, “disrupt” and “change the world”, are in a process of destroying the old order only to build a new world whose superficial diversity masks conformity of thought and a steep economic and social hierarchy.
The Counter-Enlightenment’s other intellectual descendant glorifies an imagined past of anywhere between the mid-20th century to the mid 12th, or in some cases a distant age of imagined racial purity. Its nostalgia lies to the time before the Enlightenment, to a world of hierarchies and divine aristocracies where authority is exalted and “thinking is a form of emasculation” as Umberto Eco put it. But even in its hours of triumph, its dominance is haunted by pervasive paranoia that there are forces out to subvert it. Subversion myths such as this were a feature of Christian thinking almost from the time it overwhelmed the Roman state and sought to extinguish and suppress its pagan adversaries through laws and street violence. More often though, the plots are illusory, and its followers inhabit a perpetual siege mentality. In this eschatology, the world-to-come is thought to emerge only after these problematic elements are finally purged from society — whether they be pagans, witches, heretics, ethnic minorities or ideological foes. Common themes throughout late antiquity to the middle ages, they were reinvented around the time of the French Revolution as more familiar conspiracy theories about elaborate webs of secret societies with a satanic flavour.
The innovation of fascism was to repackage the hierarchies and dogma of old regimes under the glaze of modernist aesthetics. Beneath the surface was the age-old paranoid traditionalism reinvented as futurism to broaden its appeal in a fast-changing world. And, importantly, to compete with the communist movements. Indeed, the originator of fascism — Mussolini — was himself and influential socialist before the First World War pushed he and others in the movement towards “socialist nationalism”.
Again, an explicitly stated goal is to end the Enlightenment. Goebbels quipped when the Nazis gained power that “The year 1789 is hereby erased from history.” And as it reinvented reaction as revolution it did so under the pretence of reviving long-lost pagan traditions; hence their preoccupation with ancient symbolism. But this appropriation of antiquity was another way of undermining the tenets of universalism and humanism pioneered during the Enlightenment. German classicist Werner Jaeger clarified that;
“Humanism is an ideology whose roots date back to the rational cultural system of the eighteenth century Western European Enlightenment and is therefore incompatible with the historical presuppositions of National Socialism.”
Today, it puts the nationalist right and its fascist fringes at odds with the machinations of its sister tradition — the socialist and communist radicals — who on occasion are embroiled in plots against it and vice versa. And like the 1930s, they are locked in the same dialectical dance of painting one another as nightmares to be saved from in order to spread their influence, resulting in today’s increasingly polarised divide in which centrists are lampooned for being insufficiently radical. Despite what the anti-globalist right say about postmodern left and vice versa, we are not quite at the stage of having to choose between literal Communists and literal Nazis, but these irrational extremes would once again seem to be humming to life. Despite having caused so much misery in the 20th century they lurch into the future, navigating by the light of sacred dogmas, unable to see how they blind them.
Under the gaze of hyperattention
Today the primary vector of these Counter-Enlightenment contagions is not the radio or the printing press, but the internet, that vast maelstrom of information eroding our ability to make sense of the world. Through our screens we are exposed to a wasteland of contradictory and fragmentary political narratives and divergent subcultures, each clawing for attention. As trust in experts and authorities implodes thanks to the clickbait economy, credible information sinks into the gloom of the web, and our attention is rerouted to the dopaminergic highs of emotional contagion. In such a media ecology, “reality” degenerates into whatever arrangement of information validates our prejudices while giving us the biggest hormonal kick. This is why we see a resurgence of radicals and zealots peddling their utopias, for confusion and uncertainty are the perfect habitats for the clarity of dogma. They trade in correspondence to the real world for increasingly simplistic narrative coherence, a grand unifying story that gets dumbed down the larger the audience it has to appeal to.
They attack those who carry information that compromises this coherence as if white blood cells attacking an invading microbe. The consequences are electronic witch-hunts that provide an addictive form of mass entertainment to those conducting it and a perverse theatre of cruelty to onlookers. Unleashed are the primal impulses of the mob in the form of pillorying and public shaming. Once conducted in public squares, it is now a form of reality TV entertainment played out across the global mass media: spectator sports that act as unifying rituals for the respective tribe. Social media profiles are scanned and dissected, perceived wrongdoing magnified and the rest discarded. Every aspect of the victim’s lives are deconstructed, and their hearts weighed against a feather in real-time. Under the gaze of hyperattention lives are destroyed and minds shattered by the menacing eye of mass judgement and collective scrutiny.
Again we are slowly enclosed in a pincer movement from the “left” and the “right” of the Counter-Enlightenment, committed to the extinction of Reason and the exultation of cosmic myths, polarising society in the process. The current news wave pins this on a combination of “Filter Bubbles”, “Fake News” and there is truth to both of these claims. It is true that the horizons of our thought are limited by algorithmically-enforced intellectual enclaves within which we enjoy mutual self-congratulation and validation. The internet, however, is not necessarily a requirement for humans to slip into extreme polarisation, it merely acts as an accelerant. “Fake news” too is a symptom of deeper issues embroiled with the Counter-Enlightenment, as well as being a sloppy term that covers both malicious lies, misinformation and things one does not want to hear. Coined at first to describe the wilder stories that swept Donald Trump into office it was instantly appropriated by the alpha-bullshitter and turned against his enemies. To rub it in, he later launched a series of self-flattering Facebook videos called “Real news”.
Political chaos, said Orwell, is connected with the decay of language and competing groups redefining words, coining neologisms and bullying others into accepting them as “real” or “fake” consumes a considerable amount of mind-calories in screen-to-screen interaction. Redefining emotionally-laden words for political convenience and presenting reality as a struggle between the forces of good and evil is a favourite hobby of the Counter-Enlightenment. Conservatives increasingly pin the blame on “postmodernism” for this, but as we’ll see this is more of a late symptom rather than the root of the problem. In fact in the 80s and 90s, it was hoped that a postmodern pluralism of different subcultures would offer an escape from religious and political dogma. Instead, the opposite has happened for reasons that are in retrospect clear; when “truth” devolves into “whatever your contemporaries let you get away with” as postmodernist thinker Richard Rorty once claimed, then we see a deadly combination of sacred, cosmic truths fusing with whatever is fashionable within a particular political tribe. As Karen L.Carr noted in the Banalization of Nihilism, this “paradoxically results in an absolutism at once pernicious and covert.”
Ronald Reagan was described by political scientist Walter Truett Anderson as “the first postmodern president” because of his reliance on “high-camp politics” with a “veneer of folksiness” that took us back “to an era of Norman Rockwell paintings”. A vision that often had little correlation with the facts on the ground. Reagan was not embarrassed by his background as an actor and radio presenter but revelled in it. Skilled in describing the action of baseball games on the radio in vivid terms, truth for Reagan was whatever entertained people; so he told a story of good versus evil where wars became exciting TV spectacles. Anderson was mindful that this might not be great news;
“People who agree with my assessment of him will no doubt feel that if this is what postmodernism looks like in politics, we are in big trouble. I think that concern is well-founded. Once we are detached from the old sense of reality, there may be new dangers — definitely including the danger of, as Neil Postman put it, amusing ourselves to death.”
Fast forward to today, and we would appear to have another “postmodern president”; a reality TV star adept and channelling the flow of the attention economy, selling the vision of an imagined past and eager to create media spectacles on Twitter. However hard it may be to hear, Trump’s outlandish claims of “fake news” would not have seemed plausible to quite so many people if the mass media had not frittered away their credibility in pursuit of page views and hyperbolic, hyperpartisan moral crusades. In all but abandoning the journalistic commitment to truth that keeps a society healthy, the moribund media industry has instead chosen to pursue outrage, which is one of the few reliable sources of eyeballs. Now, “fake” and “real” have joined the multitude of other words whose overuse has turned them into dubious signifiers of anything at all. This reality drift towards the supremacy of dogmatic tribalism once again represents the onset of the fever of the Counter-Enlightenment.
This confusion over what is happening in the world occurs just at the time as we need to soberly assess human impact on nature and the mass extinction event we are accelerating. Once on the edge of extinction ourselves, the human technological system now encloses 97% of all mammal biomass on Earth, and whether we like it or not our existence represents a geologically significant event. But we take this supremacy over nature for granted. It was not with blunt brawn that we terraformed our world, but with ingenuity, mastery of technology, and more fundamentally the attunement of our knowledge-structures and technologies to empirical truths that could be exploited to human ends. When knowledge-structures and truths become detached or out of sync, it has historically been catastrophic, whether it was the cruelties of the concentration camp or the ideologically motivated incompetence of the Maoist famines. We cannot let this occur on an evolutionary scale, and as such, the Counter-Enlightenment cannot be allowed to win.
This series, then, will be in part a history of these events, in part a study of the mass media ecosystem as they play out today, and in part an exploration of how we might retune our knowledge-structures along Enlightenment principles.
Sources & Further Reading
Reality’s Not What it Used to Be — Walter Truett Anderson
The Seduction of Unreason — Richard Wolin
The Banalisation of Nihilism — Karen L.Carr
The Socialist Tradition — Alexander Grey
The God that Failed — Arthur Koestler et al