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On late-19th-century decadence and its aftermath

Decadent modernity

What is the significance of the fact that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries certain (semi-fascist) sections of the middle and upper classes in Western society started obsessing over heroism, manliness, strength, military virtues, and, conversely, society’s increasing effeminacy, “neurasthenia,” desiccation, decadence, etc.? It was indeed a near-obsession, and it helped make possible fascism. What brought it about?

Obviously European imperialism helped foster the glorification of manly struggle, racial vitality and so on, but people genuinely perceived a decline in the vigor and health of their culture. Why? Again, imperialism breeding racism intensifying nationalism led to a fixation on the supposed dilution of the nation’s purity through immigration and the presence of Jews, a concern ostensibly borne out by increasing crime rates, urban chaos and filth, social dislocation, etc. But I think that to a great extent all the worries and fixations were also a product of the traumatic contradiction between collective memories (still embedded in culture) of relatively unrepressed, unregulated, un-atomized, semi-peasantly “spontaneous,” “carnival-esque” (see E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class), only semi-business-structured societies and, on the other hand, the new evolving repressive, atomized etc. social order. Western civilization was in the later throes of its transition from a post-medieval culture of full and only moderately regulated vitality (frequent festivals, carnivals, holidays, communal life, the majority of the population living according to the seasons) to a society of statist and business regulation and manifold means of instinctual repression (religion, welfare-capitalist programs of “Americanization” and such, patriotic mobilizations, regulation of holidays and pastimes of all sorts, increased policing of the streets, the beginnings of psychological therapy, mass advertising, mass education, Progressive reform movements such as temperance, etc.).

Ex-rural immigrants and cities’ lower orders still had some boisterous tendencies, but they were slowly being extirpated. The essentially passive cult of consumption was conquering society. Consumption and ease, not self-affirming self-activity. Life, in short, was becoming more passive, more institutionalized, more indoctrinated, more atomized, with more idle free time, and more “excessive” comfort, for more people. Hence you had fin-de-siècle ennui and its desiccate cultural expressions. (Impressionism and so forth.)

But at the same time, inevitably, you had the reactions, most of them reactionary. Cults of heroism, war, action, “superabundant vitality,” racial glory and conquest, etc. (which, again, were not only reactions but also served the purposes of powerful institutions and reinforced imperialist agendas). They had great appeal, promising remedies to modern boredom, resentment, and the frustration of people’s urges for community (i.e. recognition) and self-activity. Thus, in the end, fascism arose, intended at once to be a return to a more liberated society and a culmination of modern regimentation. (In this paradoxical fusion you see how it could appeal to both the masses and the institutions that wanted to control the masses.) Not surprisingly, the latter aspect prevailed over the former.

Since it was regimentation/mobilization in the service of heroism, war, and national rebirth, it had to end in a holocaust (which turned out to be World War II). After the holocaust, however, the old trends continued, this time less dangerously or problematically because the old collective memories of cultural vitality had worn thin and people had finally become accustomed to modern atomized life,[1] and anyway national power-structures had learned to integrate and coordinate with each other more effectively so as to prevent another conflagration. So the old progress of “privatization” and repression continued, until in the 1960s and 1970s another Western middle-class revolt against atomism and dehumanization occurred (coinciding with more elemental revolts all over the world, including in America’s South). It was crushed, but its “instinct”-liberating grievances and tendencies were taken up by business for the sake of profits, with the indirect result that no such “liberatory” cultural uprisings would occur again because they had become less necessary.[2] The economic system had managed to make room within itself for some degree of (degraded) instinctual liberation, even as social atomization and regulation continued apace.

So here we are now, with business more powerful than ever, society more atomized than ever, culture more desiccated than ever (although it has given people instinctual outlets, thus fostering social stability), and popular resistance to the ongoing destruction of civil society in almost as bad a shape as ever. What is to be done?

[1] Television played a huge role in thus reconciling the middle classes to their generous allotment of free time, material comfort, boredom, communal fragmentation, cultural repression, and their patterns of passive consumption.

[2] After the 1970s, “identity-politics” movements continued but with less disruptive potential than the earlier movements.

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