Consumerism into Fascism? Part 1: Carl Schmitt v. Novalis

In this first part I will argue that romantic consumerism is decidedly non-heroic and intuitively anti-totalitarian – I will try and explore the potential for totalitarian reversals in the second part.

I have argued that the now habitual condemnation of consumer culture as the central evil of contemporary capitalism is misguided and potentially reactionary. But there are proposed linkages between consumerism and a new postmodern fascism that have to be taken seriously. The most realistic scenario is given in J D Ballard’s novel Kingdom Come (as Alan Bradshaw argues) – which was an especially frightening read when EDL activism and international football events conspired to reproduce the imagery of St.-George-crossed suburban shopper fascism of the book. It is the dystopic version of the more playful Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton. But the message is the same – at one point the bored citizens of a dull consumer society will turn the violent fantasies of the stories and imageries they absorb into bloody realities.

Looking at the German Romantics it is easier to see the dystopian dimension of such medievalism as here the ‘foreign’ ideas of the French Revolution and British industrialism were countered with a yearning for an idyllic and heroic past as embodied in the Ritter- and Burgenromantik , the romanticism of knights and castles, which was eagerly taken up by the reactionary post-Napoleonic princes. Wilhelm Hauff’s  1828  Lichtenstein’s  ‘cloud-castle on rough rock’ (Wolkenschloß auf schroffem Steine) leading Wilhelm Count of Württemberg (Duke to be of Urach) to have a fantasy castle built on the  ruins of the old castle featured in Hauff’s novel to mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s megalomaniac fairy castle Neuschwanstein (begun 1869, finished 1884) which via its 1955 reconstruction as Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle marks out that branch of Romanticism as one legitimate ancestor of the culture industries.

Recently there also have been suggestions that consumerism could be a powerful tool in the hands of  contemporary totalitarian movements, as in the so-called ‘Nipsters’  (Nazis adopting Hipster styles). In my next post I will explore in what ways there indeed a grain of truth to the Ballard scenario, but before doing so I will ascertain why it is only a grain. Fascists of all couleurs rightly fear consumerism as anti-heroic (Sznaider 2000, Featherstone, 1995: 58f., 67ff.) kryptonite to their yearning for ultimate and authentic commitment to the death (as analysed, e.g. by Neocleous 2005).

What’s at the heart of that fear is the romanticism of consumerism which, as Campbell (1987) shows, derives from the 18th/19th century literary movement and which is, as I argue here, sustained by the structural romanticism of the medium of capitalist sociality, money. The most important characteristic of the Romantic is the unconditional commitment not to an imagined cause or identity, but to Imagination itself:

Magie der Einbildungskraft (Magic of the Imagination) is the title of the well-known essay in which Jean Paul defines the essence of romantic sensibility. How does it come about – asks Jean Paul – that everything, which exists only in aspiration (Sehnsucht)  and in remembrance, everything which is remote, dead, unknown, possesses this magic transfiguring charm? Because – the answer is – everything, when inwardly represented, loses its precise outline, since the imagination possesses the magic virtue of making things infinite. And Novalis: “Alles wird in der Entfernung Poesie: ferne Berge, ferne Menschen, ferne Begebenheiten. Alles wird romantisch”.’ (Praz, 1951: 14)

The commitment to the imagination is a commitment to alienation and inauthenticity. Despite being what Romantic suffering is all about, alienation is the price that they pay for their commitment to the imagination. To translate the Novalis quote: ‘At a distance everything turns into poetry: distant mountains, distant people, distant occurrences. Everything turns romantic.

The apparently reactionary aristocrat Friedrich von Hardenberg, the man behind the nom de plume of Novalis, fantasising about the Middle Ages, does not want to return to the eternal limitations of feudalism but dreams of space travel and unrestraint self realisation:

„Die Fantasie setzt die künftige Welt entw[eder] in die Höhe, oder in die Tiefe, oder in der Metempsychose, zu uns. Wir träumen von Reisen durch das Weltall — Ist denn das Weltall nicht in uns? Die Tiefen unsers Geistes kennen wir nicht — Nach Innen geht der geheimnißvolle Weg. In uns, oder nirgends ist die Ewigkeit mit ihren Welten — die Vergangenheit und Zukunft. Die Außenwelt ist die Schattenwelt — Sie wirft ihren Schatten in das Lichtreich. Jetzt scheints uns freylich innerlich so dunkel, einsam, gestaltlos — Aber wie ganz anders wird es uns dünken — wenn diese Verfinsterung vorbey, und der Schattenkörper hinweggerückt ist — Wir werden mehr genießen als je, denn unser Geist hat entbehrt.“ (Novalis 1981: 430)

[The Imagination presents us with the Future World either in the heights or in the depths or in metempsychosis. We dream of voyages through Outer Space – but is not Outer Space located within ourselves. We do not know the depths of our spirit – the mysterious Path leads Inside. Within us, or nowhere, lies Eternity and its worlds – the past and future. The outside world is the realm of the shades – it casts is shadows into the realm of light. Right now, of course, the interior seems dark, lonely, shapeless – But how different will it appear to us – once this eclipse is over and the shadow-casting object is removed – we will relish more than ever, since our spirit has been going without.]

Isaiah Berlin who, as secular Liberal, should abhor the paternalistic dreamscapes of the Romantics acknowledges the inherent if unintended liberalism in this attitude:

‘The romantic doctrine was that there is an infinite striving forward on the part of reality, of the universe around us, that there is something which is infinite, something which is inexhaustible, of which the finite attempts to be the symbol but of course cannot. You seek to convey something which you can convey only by such  means as you have at your command, but you know that this cannot convey the whole of what you are seeking to convey because this whole is literally infinite.’ (Berlin, 2000: 101)

And for the same reason Carl Schmitt, who as Catholic Fascist should relish the Romantic lore intuitively and rightly understands it as the essence of the civilisational element that undermines the Fascist project of the total movement state, consumerism, which is averse to the commitment to action he takes from Goethe’s Faust (“Im Anfang war die Tat” – “In the beginning was the deed”).

„Die romantische Generation, Ende des 18. Jahrhunderts, war nun in einer besonders schwierigen Lage. Sie hatte eine Generation vor sich, deren Leistungen klassisch waren und deren größtem Vertreter, Goethe, gegenüber sie keine andere Produktivität als einen gesteigerten bewundernden Enthusiasmus aufzuweisen hatten. Ihre Leistung war Kritik und Charakteristik; alles was sie darüber hinaus prätendierten, war bloße Möglichkeit. Sie machten verwegene Pläne und kühne Versprechungen, deuteten an und stellten in Aussicht, beantworteten jede Erwartung einer Erfüllung ihrer Versprechen mit neuen Versprechen, zogen sich von der Kunst in die Philosophie, ind die Geschichte, die Politik, die Theologie zurück, aber die ungeheuren Möglichkeiten, die sie der Wirklichkeit entgegengehalten hatten, wurden niemals Wirklichkeit. Die romantische Lösung dieser Schwierigkeit besteht | darin, daß die Möglichkeit als die höhere Kategorie hingestellt wird. Die Rolle des weltproduzierenden Ich kann man nicht in der gewöhnlichen Wirklichkeit spielen; den Zustand ewigen Werdens und nie sich vollendender Möglichkeiten zogen sie der Beschränktheit konkreter Wirklichkeit vor. Denn realisiert wird ja immer nur eine der unzähligen Möglichkeiten, im Augenblick der Realisierung sind alle andern unendlichen Möglichkeiten präkludiert, eine Welt ist vernichtet für eine bornierte Realität, die ‘Fülle der Idee’ einer armseligen Bestimmtheit geopfert. Jedes gesprochene Wort ist deshalb schon eine Unwahrheit, es beschränkt den schrankenlosen Gedanken; jede Definition ist ein totes, mechanisches Ding, es definiert das indefinite Leben; jede Begründung ist falsch, denn mit dem Grund ist immer auch eine Grenze gegeben. Jetzt kehrt sich also das Verhältnis um; nicht die Möglichkeit ist leer, sondern die Wirklichkeit, nicht die abstrakte Form, sondern der positive Inhalt.” (Schmitt, 1919: 59f.)

‘‘The romantic generation, the end of the eighteenth century, was in an especially difficult situation. They were confronted with a generation whose achievements were classical; and in response to its greatest representative, Goethe, the only productivity they had exhibited was admiring and intense enthusiasm. Their output lay in the domain of criticism and character sketches. All their pretensions that lay beyond that were merely possibility. They made audacious plans and bold promises. They made intimations and held out prospects. They responded to every expectation of a fulfillment of their promises with new promises. They withdrew from art into philosophy, history, politics, and theology. But the enormous possibilities that they had opposed to reality never became reality. The romantic solution to this difficulty consists in representing possibility as the higher category. In commonplace reality, the romantics could not play the role of the ego who creates the world. They preferred the state of eternal becoming and possibilities that are never consummated to the confines of concrete reality. This is because only one of the numerous possibilities is ever realized. In the moment of realization, all of the other infinite possibilities are precluded. A world is destroyed for a narrow-minded reality. The “fullness of the idea” is sacrificed to a wretched specifity. In consequence, every spoken word is already a falsehood. It limits unbounded thought. Every definition is a lifeless, mechanical thing. It defines indefinite life. Every foundation is false; for with the foundation, a limit is always given as well. Now, therefore, the relationship is reversed. It is not possibility that is empty, but rather reality, not abstract form, but rather positive content.’ (Schmitt, 1986: 66)

Berlin interprets this as an non-intentional, but intuitively compelling liberal stance in which mutual tolerance is enforced by the insight that the realisation of even only few of those grand designs would in the end destroy them all – so they have to remain in the realm of the imagination.

‘Here are the romantics, whose chief burden is to destroy ordinary tolerant life, to destroy philistinism, to destroy common sense, to destroy the peaceful evocations of men, to raise everybody to some passionate level of self expressive experience, of such kind as perhaps only divinities, in other works of literature were supposed to manifest. This is the ostensible purpose of romanticism, whether among the Germans or in Byron or among the  French, or whoever it may be; and yet, as a result of driving wedges into the notion of the classical ideal of the single answer to all questions, of the rationalisability of everything, of the answerability of all questions, of the whole jigsaw-puzzle conception of life, they have given prominence to and laid emphasis upon the incompatibility of ideals. But if these ideals are incompatible, then human beings sooner or later realise that they must make to, they must make compromises, because if they seek to destroy others, others will seek to destroy them; and so, as a result of this passionate, fanatical, half-mad doctrine, we arrive at an appreciation of the necessity of tolerating others, the necessity of preserving an imperfect equilibrium in human affairs, the impossibility of driving human beings so far into the pen which we have created for them, or into the single solution which possesses us, that they will ultimately revolt against us, or at any rate be crushed by it. The result of romanticism, then, is liberalism…’ (Berlin, 2000: 146f.)

 The danger posed by this intuitive liberalism to those peddling totalitarian programmes is greater than that posed by explicitly liberal and egalitarian programmes as it is not thought out but felt. And it is both pleasurable and safe. Schmitt is very specific about what he sees threatened here, and he honours Novalis by making him the main target of his attack, thus confirming that behind the medievalising romance lies an egalitarian and cosmopolitan utopia. And that implicit utopia threatens what the Fascist psyche in its ambiguity intolerance (Frenkel-Brunswik 1949) needs most: clear categorical difference of ethnicity/race and religion which Schmitt, via the notion of a ‘substanceless form’ links to the medium I think is functional in carrying over the Romantic impulse into consumer culture – money:

„Die substanzlosen Formen lassen sich zu jedem Inhalt in Beziehung setzen; in der romantischen Anarchie kann jeder sich seine Welt gestalten und jedes Wort zum Gefäß unendlicher Möglichkeiten machen. Wenn Novalis davon spricht, daß er an die Gestalten von Brot und Wein glaube, so sollte man ihm keinen anderen Glauben entgegenbringen, as den, den er selbst hat: er mein nämlich, daß Alles Brot und Wein sein kann. Er glaubt an die Bibel, aber jedes echte Buch ist eine Bibel, an das Genie, aber jeder Mensch ist ein Genie, an den Deutschen, aber Deutsche gibt es überall, die Deutschheit ist für ihn, trotz des historischen Empfindens der Romantik, nicht auf Staat und Rasse beschränkt; er rühmt die Antike, aber Antike ist überall, wo echter Geist ist; er bekennt sich als Royalisten und Monarchisten, aber ‚alle Menschen sollen thronfähig werden‘.“ (Schmitt, 1919: 72f.)

Forms without substance can be related to any content. In the romantic anarchy, everyone can form his own world, elevate every word and every sound to a vessel of infinite possibilities, and | transform every situation and every event in a romantic fashion, just as Bettina von Arnim does in her epistolary novels. If Novalis says that he believes in the forms of bread and wine in Communion, then  we should not ascribe to him a belief different from the one he himself has: Namely, he thinks that everything can be bread and wine. He believes in the Bible; but every authentic book is a Bible. He believes in genius; but every person is a genius. He believes in the Germans; but there are Germans everywhere. In spite of the alleged historical sensitivity of romanticism, for him the German character is not limited to a state and a race. It is not even limited to Germany. The French, in particular, are said to have received a portion of the German character as a result of the revolution of 1789. He declares himself to be a royalist and a monarchist; but “every person should be able to assume the throne.”’ (Schmitt, 1986: 77)


Particularly the idea that everyone could be a German really bothered the persistent antisemite Schmitt. It was not opportunism but genuine joy in discrimination that led to his endorsement of the Nuremberg Race Laws as a ‘constitution of freedom’. Natan Sznaider therefore is right to formulate his own consumerist antinationalism explicitly against Schmitt’s friend/enemy politics. Commodification of everything, he asserts,

‘allows people to choose elements from various cultural traditions and blend them into a new identity. The same process also makes it easier for people to stray from their ‘‘original’’ identities — or in conventional terms, to integrate into society. Uncommodified ethnic identities are closed to outsiders, and raise the costs for straying outside their walls: one either is or isn’t. It’s a big decision. But the more it becomes accepted that identity can be adequately manifested through symbolic gestures, that one can throw out large parts of tradition and still be accepted as part of the group, the more people are free to experiment without risking being cut off from their roots. These new ethnic identities are not necessarily weaker than the old ones. But mix and match identities are by definitions easier to mix and match. They are wholes that can interpenetrate each other through the choices of individuals that belong more than one.’ (Sznaider 2000: 307f.)

Sznaider is not naive in his projection of post-national identification in consumer societies. He sees the danger of creating a counter move by those excluded from the market to violently assert their identities in completely un-ironic ways. But the link of consumerism to a potential totalitarian turn is not entirely negative – there remains a yearning for the absolute which is blocked out in the form of the romantic dream, but preserved in their content. A catastrophic reversal from fiction to reality is thematic in quite a lot of Romantic and consumer-romantic cultural product, from Ludwig Tieck’s Hexensabbat  to Jumanji.

Berlin, Isaiah (2000): The Roots of Romanticism: The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1965. The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.: London: Pimlico.

Featherstone, Mike (1995): Undoing Culture: Globalization, Postmodernism and Identity, London: SAGE.

Frenkel-Brunswik, Else (1949): ‘Intolerance of Ambiguity as an Emotional and Perceptual Personality Variable’, in: Journal of Personality, Vol.18, no.1, pp.108-143.

Neocleous, Mark (2005): ‘Long live death! Fascism, resurrection, immortality’ Journal of Political Ideologies, Vol.10, No.1: 31-49.

Novalis (1981): ‘Vermischte Bemerkungen/Blüthenstaub 1797/98(Synoptischer Paralleldruck)’. In: Werke in einem Band, München/Wien: Carl Hanser, pp.423-83.

Praz, Mario (1951): The Romantic Agony, London: Oxford University Press.

Schmitt, Carl (1986): Political Romanticism, translated by Guy Oakes, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Schmitt-Dorotić, Carl (1919): Politische Romantik, München/Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

Sznaider, Natan (2000): Consumerism as Civilizing Process: Israel and Judaism in the Second Age of Modernity, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol.14, pp.297-314.

Leave a comment


  1. Road to Servitude

     /  02/05/2015

    Reblogged this on jonathan1723 and commented:
    Anti-consumerism is not “innocent.”


  2. for a very insightful and (as far as I am concerned) greatly helpful comment by Bertrand of see


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