Because we live in an age that is dominated by bourgeois values and the bourgeois worldview, we assume that this is the way it will always be. Francis Fukuyama, echoing Hegel, asks whether becoming bourgeois isn't the whole goal (end) of history--the bourgeois as the pinnacle of human development. Well, I hope not. Neither really does Fukuyama.
There is much to commend in the bourgeois as the type who replaced the courtier aristocrat as the modern age supplanted the medieval. But the bourgeois has become a degraded type now very similar in moral stature to the degraded aristocrat of the 17th Century. The bourgeois has become increasingly the Last Man who is interested only in his gadgets and his bread and circuses. Nazism, for instance, was among other things born of a kind of revulsion with the degraded bourgeois, and its appeal lay in its enshrinement of the older ideal embodied in the Aryan warrior as the national type. That longing for a more noble, pre-bourgeois past is the key to the emotional appeal of fascism.
We look now at Hitler and Mussolini as clowns, each in his own way a joke whom it is hard to believe now any one took seriously in their day. But if we are to learn anything from that experience, it’s most important to understand what made fascism so attractive to so many people. The resurgence of fascism is quite possible even in countries like the U.S., because the conditions that gave rise to it—namely, the spiritual vacuum created by the dissolution of modern rationalist optimism, still define the cultural mood of the contemporary West.
We have lost faith in the ideals of Enlightenment humanism and with nothing having taken its place, we have defaulted to the bourgeois Last Man, the man who is incapable of transcendent aspiration. Enlightenment ideals still shape our world to some extent, but they won't stand up to pressure. They didn't stand up in Germany, which was a great creative center for the development and propagation of Enlightenment rationalism, and we are deluding ourselves if we think that we Americans are strong enough to stand up to the kind of pressure we're likely to face in the coming decades.
Fascism is not something that presents itself in obvious ways. It sneaks up on you, and the next thing you know the country is electing someone like Hitler--someone everyone underestimates at first, someone the establishment elite thinks it can control. The Germans who voted for him didn't think he was an evil guy. And if it happens in America someday, the Americans who vote to put such a one in office won't think so either. He'll be a good Christian. He will appeal to everyone for whom patriotism isn't a word you enclose in scare quotes.
We wonder how in retrospect brilliant minds like Martin Heidegger and Ezra Pound could have fallen for fascist rhetoric and could have bought into its twisted vision. But for them, and for so many others, the attraction lay not so much in what fascism affirmed, but in what it rejected—modernity and its Last Man mediocrity. We look in hindsight at Heidegger and Pound and regard them as morally deficient for their fascism, but what attracted them to fascism was not its brutality, but rather its hatred for modernity and its business culture, and the hollow, flat-souled, overly cerebral human type it created. Fascism is a way of looking for transcendence in all the wrong places, i.e., in the past. But the argument of this blog from the beginning is that it can only be sanely sought in the future--an Absolute Future, to use Karl Rahner's language for it. There lies the end of history, after the future.
Sure, it’s easy in retrospect to condemn fascism because now we know the horrors it perpetrated. But our dismissal of fascism has become so automatic, so thoughtless, especially among our editorialists and other keepers of the bourgeois faith, that there is very little understanding about what makes it so attractive, especially to young people.
Fascism is best understood as a primitivistic, anti-modern movement that attracted people with its romanticism of a return to the purity of its warrior tribal origins. Fascism was a celebration of the bold, audacious will to power--an adolescent preoccupation, perhaps, but no less dangerous for that. It’s a lot easier to imagine a boy idolizing a gallant warrior, even if he’s an outlaw—even if he’s a Nazi storm trooper--than to imagine him doing the same for a shrewd investment banker. The first is a romantic anti-establishment hero. The second is a greedy, calculating villain.
If you are a dyed-in-the-wool bourgeois, it’s extremely difficult to understand the appeal of the National Rifle Association exactly for this reason. Owning a gun, like piercing one’s tongue, is an effective way to say I’m not one of those empty corporate or bureaucratic suits who has no real idea who he is or what he stands for except to measure his life by his corporate promotions and trophy wives. “I own a gun,” says the NRA redneck. “I am a hunter warrior--don’t mess with me. Just try taking my gun away, you gutless bureaucrat. Make my day.”
My point here is not to justify fascism or the NRA mentality, but to try to understand its pervasive and persistent appeal. It goes back to a longing to assert ourselves as a people of valor by showing that we are willing to refuse craven self-interest, and to gallantly risk all for an honorable cause. We don’t look at Nazis that way, but that’s how they looked at themselves. We don’t look at Islamic terrorists that way, but that’s how they look at themselves. And all of our action movies celebrate the same pose. We admire the gallant risk taker, the man with guts, not the sweet guy who wants everybody to be safe and happy.
It’s all regressive and nostalgic, especially now since real warfare in the twentieth century has offered little possibility for gallantry from the mindless mechanical slaughter in the trenches during WWI to the bureaucratic futility of Vietnam to the drone warfare in the Mideast. The warrior has evolved into the technician, and the technician is a classic bourgeois. Perhaps that's another reason we went into Iraq--Americans needed to prove to themselves they still had the guts to fight on the ground.
There is still some residue of the gallant warrior in some of our sports figures, but that image and our ability to admire them as warrior heroes has been compromised by their bourgeoisification as millionaire businessmen, too often more concerned with their contracts and endorsement deals than with the good of the team, or loyalty to a city and its fans. It's rare for any of them to display the idea of honor in the old-fashioned sense. That’s why we have such feeling now for icons such as Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson. They had “class”; they were each aristocrats in the old-fashioned sense, and among our contemporaries Michael Jordan is the only one who comes close to what they represented then to the culture at large. (Cal Ripken displayed something else, more of a lunchpail, blue-collar stolidity. I don't think of him as an aristocratic warrior.)
So it’s understandable that many spirited people loathe what the bourgeois has come to symbolize and feel a compelling need to define their own lives and identities over against the bourgeois image. They have to find some way to act out to prove it to themselves. Some do it by demonstrating against the WTO or the World Bank. Some by joining a fight club, others by risking their lives in extreme sports, others by piercings and tatoos. All of these behaviors are ways to rebel against the soulless, prosperity- and security-obsessed, slavish Last Man degradation of the bourgeois as a type that emerged in the commercial technological era. They are all ways of saying that is not me. But a No is not a Yes. Finding something to say Yes to is the real challenge.
The security-minded bourgeois type is not the end of history; he's simply a more or less harmless placeholder until a forward-looking transcendence-seeker can emerge as a new cultural type. But while we wait for him and her to take their place as effective historical actors, we have to protect ourselves against the damage those who look to the past for their transcendence can do. There is no future in nostalgia, at least not one that any sane person would want to live in.