Consumerism into Fascism – Part 2: The Chesterton Slide

I thought I would have a joke, and I have created a passion. I tried to compose a burlesque, and it seems to be turning halfway through into an epic. – King Auberon in G. K. Chesterton’s 1904 The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

In the first part I have highlighted how, despite suggestion to the contrary, consumerism as heir to Romanticism is incompatible with fascist politics in one crucial aspect, namely its anti-heroism and its rejection of immediate reality and realisation which lies at the heart of this anti-heroism. Their, so the damning verdict of fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt, ‘occasionism’ and refusal to act decisively in the world extended even to the reactionary visions of German Romanticism from Novalis’ medievalistic utopia to Wilhelm Hauff’s sycophancy of old Württemberg. But on the other hand it is difficult to deny that fascist propaganda does take inspiration from consumerism, especially from advertising. There are also some uncanny parallels in the mode of expression and the collective effervescences induced by both. And finally, the fundamental opposition of fascism to both Romanticism and consumerism[1] is one that concerns the mode of cultural production and consumption – not necessarily its content.

[footnote: By ‘consumerism’ I do not mean simply mass consumption of industrially produced goods, but the mass use of such products for identity-relevant hedonistic daydreams. I am also not claiming that totalitarian regimes had no such consumer culture at all. Especially Fascism more so than Stalinism allowed and encouraged consumer-cultural escapes by permitting apolitical, non-subversive cultural production for a free consumer market (as long, of course, the producers were not classified to be “racially inferior”). Walter Lacqueur points out that there were consumerist ‘joys of everyday life’ under fascist rule:

‘The less interest a person had in public affairs and the more he or she ignored politics, the freer that person could feel in his or her private world. The authorities in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (and equally in the Soviet Union) used propaganda to an unprecedented extent, but people were still not told what games to play, what movies to watch, what ice cream to eat, or where to spend their holidays. The authorities probably suspected this would be counterproductive.’ (Lacqueur 1996: 72f.)

The point is that this is a concession to the practicalities of governing a country with a developed capitalist economy – a deviation from the dream of an organically integrated, totally mobilised people. The total war which is the vanishing point of all fully-fledged Fascism notoriously makes sure that those private worlds would shrink away in the end and with it all the distractive Neugier, Zweideutigkeit and Gerede. end of footnote]

Wilhelm Hauff, for example, not only created in Georg von Sturmfeder (protagonist in Lichtenstein) the kind of steadfast Tatmensch (man-of-action) and true follower of his national cause the Nazis wrongly thought Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell to be – Hauff also delivered, with his antisemitic novella Jud Süß, a template that Veit Harlan and his team of writers could then further worsen into the script for their even more viciously antisemitic 1940 feature film of the same title, one of the most successful propaganda movies of the Nazi era. The overt ultra-nationalism, racism and misogyny at the core of fascist ideology is alien to consumer cultural products (although racist and sexist undercurrents remain pervasive – and a sublimated form is lived out into fantasies of annihilation when it comes to aliens from outer space).  The motif of the Tatmensch and celebrations of the heroic, the mythological and mechanised war, however, are quite common place. The question I am trying to tackle here, therefore, is whether and how there is a danger of a slide from the romantic consumerist imagination into fascist politics – a slide that was as mentioned envisaged in J. G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come.


Éric Michaud (2005) [hat tip: Bertrand] points out the way that proto-fascist socialist/syndicalist theorist Georges Sorel’s notion of myth as immediate imagination generated within the members of the proletariat draws on ideas of mass suggestion as developed in the new science of marketing. Crucially, propaganda/advertising here is thought to work qua evocative imagery, and not because it makes a coherent argument or  a particular point, i.e. not because it speaks to the subjected’s material interest. It must be suggestive in a way that invites the masses to see their own dreams and desires to be depicted in it. The main issue for Sorel is not to impose aims and objectives on the proletariat, not persuade them of a specific utopia that has not organically emerged out of their struggles and experiences. Such would necessarily need some persuasive argument and thus work on the level of intellect rather than emotion. It hence would be both less authentic and less forceful. Michaud argues that this is parallel to the way that early marketing theorists performed a shift from articulated promises referring to the characteristics of the commodity to images evoking identificatory dreams as a more direct conduit to the prospective consumers’ motivation. Contrary to common belief advertisers were, early on, aware of the basic fact that advertising (and, what formally is the same, propaganda) cannot create values – as Andrew Wernick (1991: 25f.) pointed out, symbolic advertising draws on pre-existing myths, values and world views, weaving them into actual desires of the target audience.

Beyond the object of aesthetisation – tooth paste or the new order – there is no categorical or formal difference between the myths of propaganda or those of advertising. More even, the focus on sustained mobilisation (into the streets, into the supermarkets) is the same in both, so much so that the dream of the propagandist and the dream of the advertiser are similar fantasies of power: control over the masses, total loyalty. Only that, of course, brand loyalty is far more fragile. As of the last post: the reason for this is that, whatever pathos it is presented with, consumer choice is never a final choice, always carries an index of reversibility, which is why consumerism is so loathed by the fascist propagandist who utilises its tools for his own purposes. Nonetheless, that propagandist is an ardent student of its advertising techniques – and once they mastered them, they also contributed to the arsenal of commercial manipulation. From the more skilful fascist aesthetics from Marinetti[3] onwards totalitarian politics and total war are equipped with an attraction that persists in popular culture beyond the demise of fascist rule. There indeed are still reverberations of, for example, the aesthetics of Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematic celebrations of the 1934 Reichsparteitag in Nuremberg and of the 1936 Olympiade in Berlin. She herself always insisted, after 1945, that these films are not propaganda because they allegedly do not really present ideological content – but of course: the fascism is in the imaging itself! (Susan Sontag 1975)

Nazi sculptor Arno Breker putting finishing touches at the fascist new man’s behind. D&G underpants would have saved him some time.  Copyright Museum Arno Breker/MARCO-VG, Bonn Toestemming publicatie

Similarly there are striking lines of continuity between that aesthetics (or, for example, the Italian Fascist project of a national fashion) and contemporary fashion ads by the likes of Dolce & Gabbana… or between Arno Breker’s and Josef Thoraks’s sculptures and the current widely promoted practice of body sculpting – as George L Mosse (1999: 49) remarks on the fascist body ideal:

‘Perhaps the strength of this particular symbol, and the deep need it fulfilled, can be seen through the fact that while most of the symbols and rituals of the civic religion of fascism have vanished after the Second World War, its stereotypes are still with us.’

As I indicated in another post – one may detect the 1939 Mercedes 320 Stromlinien-Limousine as stylistic core current models like, say, a Mercedes CLA. Indeed, as Ulrich Schmid (2005: 130f.) points out, already under Nazi rule officially commissioned propaganda art travelled into commercial advertising – such as the concept art for the Thorak monument celebrating the Autobahn ending up in a Mercedes ad (the monument itself was never built).

nazi merc thorak

Mercedes ad with Thorak’s sculpture as background – hat tip: Ulrich Schmid. The caption (“expression of powerful beauty” would not sound odd on a contemporary ad. Such as the recent “Untamed” campaign for the new CLA

These continuities do not result from historic fascism somehow implanting itself ineradicably in the minds of the people subjected to its rule, but because, like the successful advertiser, it used pre-existing myths to convey its message

‘fascism had simply co-opted ideal types which had existed ever since modern stereotypes were created’ (Mosse 1999: 49)

The difference between fascist and consumerist propaganda is not even in the imagery let alone in the centrality of the aesthetic itself.

Fascism was a project that aimed at the aesthetisation of the political and of war, glossing over the self-destruction of humanity that is the realisation of the fascist project, as Walter Benjamin famously put it:

« ‘Fiat ars, pereat mundus’, dit la théorie totalitaire de l’état qui, de l’aveu de Marinetti, attend de la guerre la saturation artistique de la perception transformée par la technique. C’est apparemment là le parachèvement de l’art pour l’art. L’humanité, qui jadis avec Homère avait été objet de contemplation pour les Dieux Olympiens, l’est maintenant devenue pour elle-même. Son aliénation d’elle-même par elle-même a atteint ce degré qui lui fait vivre sa propre destruction comme une sensation esthétique ‘de tout premier ordre’. Voilà où en est l’esthétisation de la politique perpétrée par les doctrines totalitaires. Les forces constructives de l’humanité y répondent par la politisation de l’art. » (Benjamin 1936 : 60)

[footnote: I am using the first published version which has suffered a bit under the pragmatic editorship of Horkheimer who was wary of too openly political statements, which led to the replacement of  “fascist”  by “totalitarian“ and “communism” by “constructive forces” – in hindsight both generalisations hold: like fascism, Stalinism ran on an aestheticisd politics while this fact is one of the reasons why to call what you place your hope in “communism” has become problematic.

And, by implication, the politicisation of everyday life aimed for by totalitarian doctrine means an aesthetisation of everyday life. (Schmid 2005) where aesthetics formed ‘the cement that held fascism together’ (Mosse 1999: 51). But could not something similar be said about the all-pervasive  ‘commodity aesthetics’ (Haug 1971) as cultural-industrial glue of late capitalist consumerism? Mike Featherstone (1991: 67) sees in the often attested ‘rapid flow of signs and images which saturate the fabric of everyday life in contemporary society’ the main aspect of the aestheticisation of everyday life under consumerism, but acknowledges that this flow is related to an older, more articulated artistic project, namely the modern ‘dual focus on a life of aesthetic consumption and the need to form life into an aesthetically pleasing whole on the part of artistic and intellectual countercultures’. The aspiration to consistent style that forms an aesthetically integrated whole out of the fleeting signs and symbols balances, in a constructive effort, the corroding effects of infinite choice. Having ascribed the latter to the pervasive use of money in modern society, Georg Simmel’s 1900 Philosophie des Geldes already points out how the same medium also affords, by its property of being the perfect tool, the construction of new forms to replace old certainties. And in his analysis of the phenomenon of fashion he shows how clothing becomes a prime means of forging a unity of style while maintaining complexity of forms over space and time (and of sustaining socio-historic coherence while maintain a plurality of group and individual styles).

Contemporary fashion integrating Fascist aesthetics - Milan, Corso Garibaldi, Summer 2015

Contemporary fashion integrating Fascist aesthetics – Milan, Corso Garibaldi, Summer 2015

In consumer culture with its commitment to individual choice, at least ideologically, the subject of style is the market citizen. From a governmentality perspective the opportunity (and burden) of choice at the core of consumerism:

‘It is through the promotion of ‘lifestyle’ by the mass media, by advertis­ing and by experts, through the obligation to shape a life through choices in a world of self-reference objects and images, that the modern subject is governed.’ (Rose 1990: 257)

Individual style becomes a substitute for the absence of an all-encompassing morality. Denizens of a consumer society have to deal with the same problem as the citizens of the democratic city states of ancient Greece that served Foucault as a template to understand the move from modern governmental discipline to a regime of self-disciplines in governmentality – the problem of liberty. That problem they solved by developing an individual ethos, and :

Ethos was the deportment and the way to behave. It was the subject’s mode of being and a certain manner of acting visible to others. One’s ethos was seen by his dress, by his bearing, by his gait, by the poise with which he reacts to events, etc. For them, that is the concrete expression of liberty. That is the way they “problematized” their freedom.’ (Foucault 1987: 117)

Ethos/style becomes a necessity for social interaction where consistency of conduct is no longer enforced – it ‘implies also a relation with others to the extent that care for self renders one competent to occupy a place in the city’ (Foucault 1987: 118). But consistency needs to be created – the diminished authority of tradition cannot be replaced by mere authenticity but requires creativity (borrowed or genuine), rendering the aesthetisation of everyday life a very plausible outcome:

I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.’ (Foucault 1991: 351)

Uncannily, fascists would have no problem with this statement. It is just that they would understand the “we” in a different manner. In consumerism the subject of style is the individual in their respective subcultures and ‘tribes’ – in fascism the subject of style is the nationalised people, das Volk, il popolo¸unified by the party and the leader. If not an enthusiastic member and organic part of the movement, the style will be experienced by the individual as superimposed. The task set by Nietzsche – to imbue one’s life with style[2] – is no longer understood as a task of the individual (since the individual has turned out to be much less heroic than envisaged by Nietzsche) but as something a historic heroic individual has to subject the masses to. One could say that the aesthetisation of the political is a search for order and unity that reacts to the romantic aesthetisation of life in a bourgeois culture which is beginning to be rolled out across classes in the metropolises of Europe and America (and the more there is a sense of lost tradition, of decline, the more desirable such political aesthetics will be.)  As Schmid (2005: 128) points out, both Mussolini and Hitler projected their political projects as works of art, as a kind of Wagnerian artistic totality (Gesamtkunstwerk), an opera in which the entire nation/people is recreated as an object of beauty synchronised/harmonised by the strong will of a leader who takes the part of conductor. While not genuinely innovative in an artistic sense, the aestheticisation of politics that fascism operated on encompassed everyday life – it was totalitarian in the sense that no aspect of life was to remain untouched (an ideal they never achieved in reality – the aesthetisation through consumerism is far more complete). Both fascism and consumerism hence could be said to aim at a total aestheticisation of everyday life.

In fascism, the search for total form (as culminating in Hitler and Speer’s megalomaniac plans for a new world capital Germania) is matched by a desire for destruction and decay (I will come back to that), so that in a Janus-faced necrophilia the frozen perfect order is paired with the mass deaths in the camps and battle-fields that are to clear the ground for that new order. Wolfgang Eßbach (1995: 148) points out, Carl Schmitt stands for the aspect of total order as form, finding beauty in law and clear distinction, in contrast to Ernst Jünger who finds beauty in ecstatic killing sprees and mass death in disasters (see Herf 1984: 98ff.). We find a similar search for form and destruction in consumerism, but again defused by being broken down to the small scale of the individual market citizen and a shift from real violence to representations of violence (and violence towards inanimate objects – the problem of waste).

As Anthony King (2006) argues, the pleasure found in representations of serial killing as facilitated by novels and movies, is a symptom of a postmodern selfhood which seeks residual agency in an age where it appears to be suffocated by the governmentality of multinational corporation.[1] Walter Benjamin accounts for how such impulses find their therapy in cinematic expression in that they

« … présentent des phantasmes sadiques et des images délirantes masochistes de manière artificiellement forcée, préviennent la maturation naturelle de ces troubles dans les masses, particulièrement exposée en raison des formes actuelles de l’économie. »

As murder is transformed into an object of amusement, into outright comedy it provokes an

 « explosion prématurée et salutaire de pareilles psychoses collectives. » (Benjamin 1936 : 60sq.)

The deed itself is eschewed – it is substituted, acted out, on screen, which makes it possible to uphold the taboo on killing that comes with the generalisation of commodity exchange (and whose abolition is one of the selling points of fascist movements) (Claussen 1994: 48).

In Part One I suggested that what keeps the Romantics’ aestheticisation of the feudal world, the imagination of authoritarian and heroic worlds from turning into a real-life fascist utopia is the commitment to non-commitment. Even where the subject of a Romantic story or a Hollywood movie is heroism, it is suspended in irreality. While fascism is a political religion, an absolute commitment, consumer culture is secular in that it is pluralist and individualistic. This obliges the consumerist believer to learn the Romantic skill of getting in and out of states of what Coleridge called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (Campbell 1987: 76), a veritable psycho-technique.


It is this technique with which the Romantics initially, and consumerism subsequently, coped with the loss of meaning in the process of what Max Weber has famously called the ‘disenchantment of the world’ (Entzauberung der Welt) at an individual level: the indulgence in daydreams of magical worlds in which everything, somehow, makes sense. (e.g. Ritzer 1999). Fascism, of course, also grows out of an unhappiness with Enlightenment and disenchantment  and seeks to re-mythicise the world in earnest.

Dis-enchantment means the loss of meaning in the sense of loss of agency in the world (for this and the following see Günter Dux 1982, 2010). Where once the world could be understood as woven by the agentic powers of which humans themselves were only one, not only are natural processes now devoid of spirits (i.e. they can be explained, but no longer understood), even what is seen as the heart of modern society, the economy, appears as a natural process beyond the control of human intentions. Action logic has given way to process logic as the adequate way to conceptualise the world. This results in, literally, very powerful concepts in that a world thus explained is accessible to technological control and manipulation beyond the wildest dreams of previous ages. But it is also very dissatisfying. As we build our world during ontogenesis in social contexts, contexts within which hardly anything happens that is not the result of human agency, action logic is inscribed in our cognitive schemes and it is – however recognisably inadequate – still the most intuitive way of perceiving and thinking. We still are more fond of whodunits than of howdidithappens, be it in crime fiction or reflections on the economy. The argument that the through the ways the mysterious substance that is money seems to make things happen, have its own agency, is well known – Marx’s famous commodity fetish. Confronted with an apparently self-moving world of goods the subjects of capitalism are intrigued in precisely the same way as anyone being intrigued by a work of art – its production process shrouded in mystery the object is still an index of production, indicates an agent behind it (Gell 1998: 13f.).

Where everything has become just a very complex process with no recognisable subjective intention behind it, there is a dire need for re-enchantment. Consumerism provides for it in the magical worlds of the mall, the cinema, the theme park,, tourism. Consumerism is all about stories into which the consumer can immerse themselves (in novels, in films, in TV series…). Objects of consumption from scents to cars facilitate the consumer to dream themselves into alternative worlds in semi-scripted ways. This is why Romanticism’s principle of the willing suspension of disbelief is the key to understanding the skill involved in symbolic consumption  (Campbell 1989). The very-late Romantic author and Catholic apologist Gilbert Keith Chesterton celebrates the elegance of the solution thus found to the dilemma of living in a secular world while yearning for a magic one. By contrasting it with the madness of those seeking consistency he also points to the danger of a collapse of the willing suspension of disbelief – the totalitarian potential of Enlightenment rationalism. In his 1908 pamphlet Orthodoxy he projects this ability as the mysticism of ‘ordinary men’:

‘Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery, you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees | two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also.’

This is primarily directed against the alleged insanity of  modernity which destroys meaning by insisting on scientific consistency. But it is also directed against a mad agentic, magico-religious interpretation of the world which seeks consistency in what ends up as an all-encompassing, but narrow conspiracy theory. Breadth of imagination is traded in for consistency – and crucially: trivial reality, profane un-enchanted life, which the ordinary mystic can easily come back to, is squashed by the overbearing hyperreality of the enchantment:

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable MARK of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.

The most consistent, most unanswerable, most unrealistic and maddest conspiracy theory of them all is, of course, antisemitism (and the fact that Chesterton’s own anti-Jewish prejudice has not developed into full antisemitic paranoia is probably owed to his rejection of narrow universality). For the fascist, antisemitism is of course the go-to explanation of the corrupt world that is to be replaced by the new order. Detlev Claussen (1994) analysed it as an ‘everyday religion’[3] in which the alleged Jewish world conspiracy takes the place in the explanation of evil which was once reserved for devils and demons. Moishe Postone (1988) points out that while Marxist analysis of the commodity fetish normally stresses the appearance of quasi-natural necessity of economic structures that obscures the fact that economic processes are merely an aspect of human praxis, to understand antisemitism we have to look at how the intuitive rejection of the most abstract (money) and the modern institutions it facilitates and comes to symbolise (liberal democracy, bureaucratic administration, abstract law, modern science etc.). This rejection combines with pre-existing anti-Jewish prejudice to contribute to the development of modern antisemitism, but that the position of the subject behind the uncomfortably anonymous machinery of modernity is filled with ‘the Jew’ is a historic coincidence (hence the term ‘structual antisemitism’ attributed to Postone). For example proto-fascist theorist of Kulturpessimismus Oswald Spengler (1923: 627ff.), without naming “the Jew” that open antisemites put behind that sort of “theory”, explains the alleged ‘decline of the occident’ by the overwhelming and corroding effect of an ‘onslaught of money’ in which the ‘conquering economy’ (the Nazis will call it ‘raffendes Kapital‘ – ‘grabbing capital’) subdues the ‘producing economy’ (‘schaffendes Kapital‘ – ‘creating capital’ in the Nazi jargon) and projects a battle between ‘money’ and ‘blood’,  the unity of the race under a new Cesar. Such misconception of capitalism creates an independent variable behind the money which would explain its urge to grab and control – especially if one believes, as Spengler did, that the economy is driven by the work of leaders ‘jede Art von Wirtschaft also aus Führerarbeit und ausführender Arbeit.’ (1923: 614). Postone talks of a ‘romantic impulse’ that makes such kind of thinking attractive – the urge to re-enchant capitalism by picturing it as a struggle between hidden, but subjective, powers of evil against the well-meaning, innocent and productive people. Chesterton’s own third-way anti-capitalism and idyllic distributionism veered towards such an image of capitalism without developing into a fully antisemitic world view. And that may well be because that ‘romantic impulse’ encourages both the abhorrence of the abstract and its personalisation in demonic forces – but eschews clarity and consistency. And so we end up with a plethora of conspiracy-style explanations of the world – super villains criminal, corporate or political, fought by knights in shining armour such as private investigators, secret agents, journalists, wizard apprentices etc etc – which in their entirety drive home the point that not any of them can be taken seriously.

What Fascism has in common with Enlightenment, the modern element in its anti-modernism, as famously laid out by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1969/1944), is the inability to deal with ambivalence, the addiction to clarity. And if things are not clear, terror is an excellent means of making them clear. The simultaneous longing for absolute clarity and the mourning for the world lost in dis-enchantment explains the peculiar mixture of ultra-modernism and archaism that is the hallmark of all fascist movements (postmodernist attempts to explain fascism solely by modernisation – such as that of Zygmunt Baumann [1989] – are as mistaken as attempts to portray Fascism as complete breakdown of modern civilisation as supposedly by Norbert Elias [a reading of Elias which is contested – see Dunning/Mennell 1998]).

So if the yearning for fairyland which consumer culture satisfies in a parallel world is married to the spirit of Enlightenment that pervades the sphere of production it is not unconceivable to see what a totalitarian movement sets out to accomplish as, in parts, the realisation of scenarios prefabricated by the consumerist culture industries. The box-office success of a mythology that could easily figure as the invented history of a racist regime (such as the all-White lore of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) testify to the attraction of the underlying ideological schemes of perception – yet Liberals can easily consume it in ironic mode without buying into the world view of racial determinism that structures the universe of Middle Earth (let alone the magic brought in at crucial turning point of its race wars). However, it also shows how mythological and magical thinking is, though contained, also retained and preserved in consumer culture (and thus helps to continue racist stereotype [e.g. Auerbach 2002]).

That Romanticism is an anti-Enlightenment attitude does not really need to be emphasised. But herein lies its ironic liberal trait that Isaiah Berlin highlights (see Part 1). For the enlightened intellectual there is but one truth while the Romantic lives in many worlds. And because of that the Romantic irony plays off the madness of the mystic against the madness of the rationalist. To repeat – this is what fascists detest in Romanticism and what they hate in consumerism. And it is not because of the content of many of their visions but the fact that due to the shift from seeking eternity to seeking infinity they would not commit to the realisation of any of those scenarios. Novalis, reviled by Carl Schmitt, did draw a picture of Christian Europe in which someone like the occidentalist-fascist terrorist Anders Breivik could have felt comfortable, especially as its claim to cosmopolitanism is overshadowed by its exclusionist antisemitic and Orientalist implications (see Svenungsson 2014). But while within the logic of Novalis’ pamphlet the proclaimed cosmopolitanism seems like mere rhetoric it is enforced by the decidedly unheroic nature of the Romantic imagination – an imagination that is dependent on the fact that it is not translated into reality and that the blue flower is never found.  On the other hand, of course, because the Romantic visions are contained in this safe zone of an imagination that is not allowed to spill over into mundane reality, this imagination can be allowed to produce dreams of heroism with sometimes breathtaking irresponsibility. In doing so it, alongside its consumerist successors (the world of Narnia would fit into Breivik’s perverse utopia just as much as the world of Novalis’ Christian Europe – if you do not believe me, read The Horse and His Boy, the fifth of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia novels, or third in plot line), it playfully reproduces an ethos that is attractive to fascists (and plays out the fascist part in the pacified consumer) while attempting to live by such an ethos constitute an outright sacrilege against the secular Romantic spirit (the secular consumer religion, the cult of the individual according to Durkheim).


Fascism is not only a political religion in the sense that it operates on a non-ironically religio-magical cognitive scheme (and hence works with myths and rituals). Its emphasis on heroism and sacrifice can also be taken as religious elements. To an observer well-versed in the religious developments of medieval and early-modern Europe like George Mosse this is immediately clear as he notices the resonances of millenarianism and of the cult of martyrs and saints, as well as the religious aesthetics of the symbols and mass meetings. In reactivating such religious aesthetics in real life politics fascism can draw on their continued availability in the parallel worlds constructed in Romanticism and subsequent popular cultures. Such reactivation is fuelled by a non-Romantic longing for reality (i.e. a longing for the end of longing – while in consumerism longing itself has become an object of longing as the ‘introduction of day-dreaming into hedonism […] not only strengthens desire, but helps to make desiring itself a pleasurable activity’, Campbell, 1987: 86). There are, in the pre-history of European fascism, two main sources of such desire for reality: the experience of modern warfare across the male population – and the personal and cultural alienation of parts of the academic elites.

War as fun, war as probation

The war experience as life-historical background of the generation from which European Fascism recruited its initial militants is mythicised and transformed into an ideal state of being:

‘The war became a symbol of youth in its activism, its optimism and its heroic sacrifice. For Germans, the Battle of Langemarck (November, 1914), where members of the German Youth Movement were mowed down in thousands, came to stand for the sacrifice of heroic youth. the flower of the nation, so the myth tells us, went singing to their death. One writer, Rudolf Binding, asserted that through this sacrifice only German youth had the right to symbolize national renewal among the youth of the world.’ (Mosse 1999: 14)

Mosse points out that fascism capitalised on the fact that in coping with the war experience ‘very few became pacifists, many more attempted to confront the mass death they had witnessed by elevating it into myth.’ (Mosse 1999: 14f.) The Left, he says, had no real answer to that experience. More, as Klaus Theweleit shows, even the communists with their militant revolutionism were not able to match the way the fascists used violence not just as a means, but as a pleasurable, quasi-erotic experience used to recruit followers.

 ‘We may at last arrive at an understanding of fascism’s triumph in Germany. What the texts cited have most clearly demonstrated is a refusal by fascism to relinquish desire – desire in the form of a demand that “blood must flow,” desire in its most profound distortion. In the German Communist Party (KPD) desire was never seen as the producer of a better reality; that party never so much as intimated that there might be pleasure in liberation, pleasure in new connections, pleasure in the unleashing of new streams. Instead, desire was channelled into plotting and scheming tactics and strategies – literary ones included – while fascism screamed “Germany awaken!” What was “sleeping” had ears to hear its call as a bell-peal of immediate resurrection: “the dead” could now return from the entrails.’ (Theweleit 1989: 185)

The joys of gratuitous violence are not alien to the contemporary consumer. What the Freikorps acted out in the streets (and which, nowadays, neo-Nazis as well as members of fascist militias like ISIS in Syria and Iraq still practise) is acted out in the imagination by consumers of horror and war movies and particularly in video games (or, say, paint ball). Given how popular such images of violence are today and how (in historical comparison) rare real violence is in Western societies is – consumerism seems to have found a viable alternative that allows for the safe satisfaction of such impulses. The joy of killing and the thrill of mortal danger can be lived through in an out-of-body experience that allows not only gratuitous slaughter but also for countless deaths and resurrections. But it would be too simple to reduce this to a libidinal aspect. There is a moral dimension too – it is about probation. Probation as central element of religious practice – and as such also as topos in the fascist myth.

Fascist myth is as difficult to pin down to a shared theme or motif as is fascist aesthetics and it is equally eclectic (and in that sense post-modern). The claim to racial or national supremacy  is mythically justified in various ways where both the character of descent (racial, cultural, spiritual) and the identification of the chosen (and their enemies) is constantly shifting (so much so that it has been claimed that fascism does not have an ideology at all, e.g. Parker 1969. As Franz Neumann [1967: 467] observes in 1944, ‘National Socialism has no political theory of its own, and […] the ideologies it uses or discards are mere arcana dominationis, techniques of domination.’). But there is a shared characteristic and that is the necrophiliac notion of probation in life/death struggles – the fascist myth affirms its own reality and that of the fascist movement by tying it to death (Neocleus 2005). In this respect it is revealing what ‘myth’ George Sorel selects as the imaginal focus for the unification of the proletariat in his proto-fascist version of socialism: the general strike. This is counter-intuitive and looks rather un-mythical in comparison to, say, the Nibelungen myth so popular with German nationalists. But it is the closest that a syndicalist comes to a warlike experience. It is not by accident that Sorel’s influential book is not a ‘reflection on strike’ but one ‘on violence’. This is about heroism – and heroism is about probation, about having one’s value tested in life/death situations – only that for a syndicalist not even the Commune de Paris could serve as inspiring myth since that was, after all, an episode in the history of political socialism.

What about ‘probation’, then?[4] A logic of probation is, as Ulrich Oevermann (1995) argues, inscribed in the structure of human action in the sense that, because there is choice, because we can do one thing or another, or one thing or nothing at all, we can always act wrongly. That is, the idea of being judged is not only connected to mortality and afterlife, but already present in everyday practice and its temporality. Early on – as in the Biblical myth of the Fall from Eden – this problem has been a central field of religious thought and practice. The traditional answer is a religiously backed morality, a code which defines what constitutes right action and what dishonourable conduct. This would not guarantee success – but it made sure that lack of success would not mean failure. One can be vindicated in failure as long as one did not break the rules of the moral code. So much so that the good death was seen as more important than any less than honourable victory. Evidently, the notion of “honour” was reserved for the nobility – but for the lower classes functional equivalents, religiously justified standards of behaviour, did exist and here, too, a good death was more important than anything else when it came to prove worthy and hence be rewarded by the salvation of one’s soul (e.g. Ariès 1977). The tales of saints and knights communicated that the highest ideal of conduct, even if unachievable for a commoner, is that of heroism.[5] Already in court society, i.e. in the Dynastic Age when what used to be a warrior elite dispersed in their own little castles, were drawn to the centralised courts of the more powerful monarchs where they had to be transformed into tamed courtiers able to control their aggressive impulses and vie for prestige through their conversational skills more than through their fencing skills (Elias 1976b: 364). The aggressive impulse does not vanish, but is channelled into a game zone – the courteous origins of modern sports. And modern sports are, for Elias (1976a: 372f.), a continued expression of the lust for combat and aggression, but one that also works vicariously for audiences which are only involved in the fight (and all sports are combative):

„Allerdings haben diese Affekte in „verfeinerter“, rationalisierter Form auch im Alltag der zivilisierten Gesellschaft ihren legitimen und sehr genau umgrenzten Platz. Und dieser Anblick ist für die Art der Transformation, die mit der Zivi|lisation im Affekthaushalt vor sich geht, recht bezeichnend. Die Kampf- und Angriffslust findet z.B. einen gesellschaftlich erlaubten Ausdruck im sportlichen Wettkampf. Und sie äußert sich vor allem im „Zusehen“, etwa im Zusehen bei Boxkämpfen, in der tagtraumartigen Identifizierung mit einigen Wenigen, denen ein gemäßigter und genau geregelter Spielraum zur Entladung solcher Affekte gegeben wird. Und dieses Ausleben von Affekten im Zusehen oder selbst im bloßen Hören, etwa eines Radio-Berichts, ist ein besonders charakteristischer Zug der zivilisierten Gesellschaft.“ (Elias 1976: 372f.) (It has to be said that these affects have, in “refined”, rationalised form, their legitimate and delineated place in the everyday life of civilised society. And this view is indicative for the kind of transformation taking place in the affectual economy of civilisation. The lust for combat and aggression, for instance, finds its permitted expression in sportive competition. And it mainly is a matter of “viewing”, for example in watching boxing matches, in the day-dreaming identification with the few for whom a tempered and finely regulated area of play allows the discharge of such affects. And this living out of affects by watching or even only listening, e.g. a radio report, is a particularly typical trait of civilised society.’)

This works just as well for heroic action in movies and especially in video games (the way the player is bodily absorbed in gaming has been analysed by Victor Gazis 2012). But it is not, as I mentioned, only to be understood in terms of solely a libidinal economy, not just a question of aggressive impulse – it is a question of probation.  Which is why the notion of heroism is not going away

Mike Featherstone has highlighted the contrast between consumerism and heroic society, but he also notes that, as a theme, heroism does not go away:

‘Consumer culture does not put forward a unitary message. The heroic life is still an important image in this culture, and as long as there still exists interpersonal violence and warfare between states there is a firm basis for the preservation of this image, as the risking of life, self-sacrifice and commitment to a cause are still important themes sustained within male culture.’ (Featherstone, 1995: 67)

“At the same time consumer culture puts out mythical hero images of the Superman and Rambo type, as well as pastiches and parodies of the whole heroic tradition such as the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and various blends of both such as are found in the Indiana Jones films.”

However (and the fact that even types like Superman and Rambo cannot be taken seriously as role models except by very young boys or by severly deluded men already suggests that): The culture of heroism has become mediated and in terms of real-life persons it is the actors who get the admiration, not those whom they represent on screen.

“Yet within the consumer culture which developed in the twentieth century, the new popular heroes were less likely to be warriors, statesmen, explorers, inventors or scientists and more likely to be celebrities, albeit that some of the celebrities would be film stars who would play the role of these former heroes.” (Featherstone 1995: 69)

And the actor is of course the true anti-hero of the consumerist age as they appear to have perfected the skill of suspension of disbelief while not vanishing into their roles – hence the interest in their private lives. In that sense, using Ulrich Bröckling’s (2015) typology of the anti-heroic the non-heroic consumer is not really outside what Bröckling calls the ‘field of tension’ of the heroic. He is attracted but at the same time repulsed – held in suspension as if exposed to rapidly alternating magnetic poles. The aspect of play as preparation is conserved, but the fast succession of variations constantly removes what is prepared for.

Once what begun in the replacement of combat by sports in court society resulted in a totalisation of the game sphere in consumer society, playful training for later life (or continuous training to maintain certain skills) becomes a generalised ersatz reality in which the probation can be sought – different identity projections can be tried out playfully (internally through culture-industrially facilitated daydreams or with an audience through the conspicuous display of assembled styles in fashion, automobility, or cultural consumption). The intensity of experienced probation/vindication in play is of course reduced as is the risk involved. This does not mean it is irrelevant. As Johan Huizinga (1956) characterises play as consciously put outside the context of everyday, “real” life into a separate sphere, following its own rules, having its own order independent of the life world it is an intermezzo in. It is performed in a relatively disinterested manner and its outcomes do not have consequences in real life, just as real life does not impact on the game. Within its limits it is to be taken seriously, but that seriousness is mitigated by its apparent lack of consequences beyond the spatially and temporally delimited game sphere. It is this removal from immediate functional relevance that, paradoxically, makes play culturally relevant in that it opens a space for experimentation, for thinking through alternative scenarios. We can see literature as such a playing field – a case powerfully made by Salman Rushdie (1990):

‘Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way. The reason for ensuring that that privileged arena is preserved is not that writers want the absolute freedom to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers and writers and citizens and generals and godmen, need that little, unimportant-looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but we do need to remember that it is necessary.’

 The functionality of play becomes immediately apparent when we think of child’s play as preparation for adult life and of the antecedents of sports as military training. In a society which generalises play by letting it pervade as many areas of life as possible (and it is conceivable that consumer society is such a society – and that it thereby becomes the social ideal to which Romanticism ideologically led up), probation is reduced in intensity, but it is (since there is less risk) also made more complex and more frequent. One can also observe a gradual shift in the nature of heroism represented in popular cultural discourses from heroism of the Achilles type to that of the Odysseus type. Achilles seeks vindication in death: when put to the choice between a long, comfortable life without glory and a short one that earns him fame and honour he chooses the latter. He is a strongman to the fascists’ taste: invulnerable through invisible body armour he seeks an early death in combat to give him immortal fame. In contrast Odysseus relies on his cleverness in order to survive the many adventures he falls into, is exposed to the widest possible variety of impressions and experiences (although, of course, unlike the modern tourist he is not yet given to cherish them), and ultimately returns into ordinary life. But Achillean motives persist in consumer culture. As Susan Sontag (1975) points out in her discussion of the rehabilitation of Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl: the glorification of surrender to the leader, the exaltation of mindlessness involved therein and the glamorisation of the inevitable consequence of all of this, death, which are typical for all her films, can also be found in some Hollywood movies, though they are outnumbered by the Odyssean theme of the survival of the clever, and the return into ordinary life. The Romantic poet Heinrich Heine – Heine who coined the dictum that where they burn books they will, eventually, also burn people – calls up the episode in which Achilles regrets his choice of a short and glorious life vis-à-vis Odysseus who visits him in Hades.

„Der Pelide sprach mit Recht: / Leben wie der ärmste Knecht / In der Oberwelt ist besser, / Als am stygischen Gewässer / Schattenführer sein, ein Heros, / Den besungen selbst Homeros.“ (Heine 1975: 239) (The Pelid [i.e. Achilles] rightfully spoke: To live like the poorest serf in the Upper World is better than to be Leader of the Shadows at Styx, than to be a hero, and be it one who has been praised by Homer himself)

Heine sums up these regrets in an exclamation that, like his condemnation of book burnings, amounts to an anti-fascist slogan before the rise of fascism:

„Unser Grab erwärmt der Ruhm. /Torenworte! Narrentum!” (“Our grave is warmed by glory” – the words of idiots! foolishness!)

Still – death and glory as much as quite fascistic ideas of law and order (think of Judge Dredd) are continued motifs, held in check by the secular pluralism of the consumer-romantic imagination (which is not only, I should mentioned, a Romantic legacy – it is perpetuated by what could be called a structural romanticism of money). One could think that they are “safely contained” in the playing fields, the paint-ball arenas, the game consoles, cinemas, novels… But the fact remains that there are single cases where dissatisfied individuals refuse to respect the boundary between play and reality and violate the boundaries (hooliganism is such a case, to link back to Elias’ point on spectator sports as replacement for war – and from there are frequent moves from hooliganism into fascist activism such as most recently the Ballardesque EDL with their St George flags or their German copycats Hogesa). Play has a tendency to spill over – which is why the maintenance of its boundaries is not a given but a cultural technique, a continuous secularising effort similar to that which keeps the religious in its proper sphere. Both could be said to conserve the historically overcome which in it is – in all so many variations and parallel histories – continuously recreated. Whether history always happens twice – ‘first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’ – or not: history repeats itself in child’s play. Relating his studies in the history of toys to Freud’s speculations on repetition, viz. repetition compulsion Walter Benjamin writes in his reflections on toys:

“Der Erwachsene entlastet sein Herz von Schrecken, genießt ein Glück verdoppelt, indem er’s erzählt. Das Kind schafft sich die ganze Sache von neuem, fängt noch einmal von vorn an. Vielleicht ist hier die tieftste Wurzel für den Doppelsinn des deutschen ‘Spielen’: Dasselbe wiederholen wäre das eigentlich Gemeinsame. Nicht ein ‘So-tun-als-ob’, ein ‘Immer-wieder-tun’, Verwandlung der erschüttenrden Erfahrung in Gewohnheit, das ist das Wesen des Spielens.”   (Benjamin 1969: 71) (The adult relieves his heart from terror, enjoys one happiness twice, by narrating it. The child creates the whole thing anew, restarts from scratch. Maybe that is the deepest root of the ambiguity of German Spielen [“play”]: To repeat the same would be the common denominator. Not “acting as if” but “doing it again and again”, transformation of the harrowing experience into a habit, that is the essence of playing.)

At least as much as it develops the ability to improvise through variation, playing involves the development of routines through repetition (and there is as much repetitiveness as there is innovation in consumer culture). And routines urge to be deployed in practice. If play is preparation then the probation had in play is something that suggests itself as to be played out in reality.

In relation to a potential slide from consumerism into fascism there are two aspects of interest here. One is that in terms of available myths within the wide range of consumer daydreams fascistoid patterns will be preserved and thus are still available. The other is that (especially for men who have seen military action or have grown up in an atmosphere of crime and gang violence) all this must seem like child’s play incompatible with an adult masculine identity.[6]

The latter point is easy to see – having undergone what must feel like the ultimate test: life-and-death struggles, what kind of probation does civilian life with its routine jobs and superficial pleasures have to offer?

From Cultural Despair to the Romanticism of Steel

One way of understanding the Kulturpessimismus at the roots of the proto-fascist intellectual movement of the Konservative Revolution (“konservativ” being a misnomer as not even “reactionary” would quite capture what they were about) is as de-secularising Romanticism. As pointed out earlier – it is by no means the Romantic visions and stories these intellectuals had a problem with, it was their lack of will to realisation, the pragmatic liberalism of those admirers of a pre-liberal age. The cultural pessimists hated such liberalism with a vengeance

‘Above all, these men loathed liberalism; Lagarde and Moeller saw in liberalism the cause and the incarnation of all evil. It may seem curious that they should have fastened on liberalism, the one political force in Germany that perpetually lost. To understand why they did this leads us to the core of their thought. They attacked liberalism because it seemed the principal premise of modern society; everything they dreaded seemed to spring from it: the bourgeois life, Manchesterism, materialism, parliament and the parties, the lack of political leadership. Even more, they sensed in liberalism the source of all their inner sufferings. Theirs was a resentment of loneliness; their one desire was for a new faith, a new community of believers, a world with fixed standards and no doubts, a new national religion that would bind all Germans together. All this liberalism denied.

Hence they hated liberalism, blamed it for making outcasts of them, for uprooting them from their imaginary past, and from their faith.’ (Stern 19963: xii f.)

The sociological background of this hatred is to be sought in the rapid modernisation of German society that undermined the position of the academic intellectual (Ringer’s [1969] “German mandarins”) which left many gifted and many more less-than-gifted-but-driven ones marginalized (also see Bourdieu 1996). Often this goes together with other experiences of disappointment which equipped with a strongly developed desire for form and structure, and for a more authentic life, more reality.

In a way the psychology of this has been anticipated and explained by someone who was on the reading list of all those proto-fascist cultural pessimists of the Konservative Revolution: G. F. W. Hegel. Bourgeois society as promoted by liberalism appears in his Philosophy of Right and the mode of recognition. For Hegel bourgeois society falls into two spheres of experience whose respective rewards and frustrations balance that of the other: family and married life on the one hand and the market economy (the ‘system of needs’) on the other. In them and between them a web of recognition and selfhood is woven that replaces the feudal lord/bondsman scheme. Here the bondsmen have come into their own and have (in the system of needs) generalized the master-slave relation in a way that everybody is everybody else’s slave as producer and everybody else’s master as consumer (cf. Kojève 1947 : 190f.). But the price is that recognition also has become abstract: one is recognised as producer, not as a full person. This recognition is very strong (since it is based on need and not on sympathy) and by its lack of reference to any characteristic beyond the producer role it also confirms the producer as free person not determining any characteristics outside that role – but it leaves him dissatisfied with a not fully confirmed selfhood. This he finds in love and marriage. Here the free individual finds another free individual[7] and from that position of freedom by instituting mutual love in marriage preserves individual freedom while also gaining recognised personhood. The outcome of that marriage is, of course, a child – a child who is overwhelmed and stifled with love, completely recognised as what he is, the incorporation of the love of his parents, but by that also completely defined and therefore unfree. That is unbearable for what is, after all, as child of free individuals the child desires to be free as well – and sooner or later leaves for the system of needs.

So far so good – for many of the proto-fascist intellectuals it did not work out that way and, not able to balance the alienation in the system of needs, in modern Gesellschaft, with the hopes invested in family/partnership/community they resent its abstractness and demand that itself be transformed into a national community, a Gemeinschaft that as palingenetic ultra-nation (Griffin 1993) provides an authenticity of total unity incorporated in the symbol of the leader. That authenticity is to be verified in heroic, final commitment to community and leader; truth is in death. In Hegelian terms this fascist vision of a greedy community does not just, in its demand for total submission, constitute a return to a lord/bondsman relation. It goes back one (logical, not historical) step before that into pure Desire (Begierde) of a self that can only confirm itself by annihilating the other (which is, therefore, on the constant search for enemies within and without).

In consumerism we do have insatiable desire as well – and Colin Campbell gestures to its relatedness to the tension between a rational/abstract modern society and the nuclear family as its other. But it is a particularly Romantic insatiability in that it has learned that the only way to preserve the infinity of imagination is to resist the temptation to final realisation. This leaves a sense of alienation and reification that the cultural pessimist could not live with.

In proto-fascist antisemite Julius Langbehn, who was to inspire a generation, this link between disappointment in personal relationships and estrangement from modern society, and the reversion into Hegelian Desire is most pronounced, as Fritz Stern sketches his personality:

‘It was in the 1880’s, when Langbehn lived alone and without recognition, that he developed an intense culte du moi, an obsession with the self, a glorification of it, an elaborate pretense of self-sufficiency. It was then that he turned his habitual narcissism – he could sit for hours before his own portrait, caressing it – into a conscious principle of life. His behavior became more and more unbalanced, and the gap between his ideal self-image and his actual conduct all the more agonizing. He craved friends and affection, only to rebuff both when he found them; he sought renown and recognition, yet devised the most elaborate disguises and feats of disappearance. He exalted as supreme such virtues as strength, health and self-sufficiency, only to beg – insolently to be sure – for favors that would sustain him, only to be | plagued by recurrent paranoiac fears that unless he bought and prepared his own special diet, his enemies would succeed in poisoning him. He had an unbounded sense of his own importance, yet he suffered immensely from even the most innocuous, often imaginary slights. In his dealings with men and ideas, he was rigid and uncompromising; his portraits and judgments bear no nuances, no subtle shadings. Men either submitted to him totally or were cut off. His affective life, in short was dogged by deprivation and disappointment, and his contacts with other persons, of either sex, were painful and immature. His refusal to work deepened his isolation, rendered him more dependent on the bounty of others, and made him still less capable of mastering life. Gradually he faded into a phantom world of his own, remote from reality, surrounded by books, pictures, fears and daydreams, obsessed with thoughts about himself.’ (Stern 1963: 104f.)

Politically this is matched by a yearning for national rebirth, community, salvation by a national leader, racial purity, aggressive antisemitism and celebration of war. As it is in the other protagonists of cultural despair Stern analyses – and they, too, struggled with social isolation, difficulties to maintain personal and/or professional relationships  (Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, author of Das Dritte Reich, as much as Paul de Lagarde, dreamer of a new national religion). It is a pattern we find again and again. Wolfgang Eßbach (1995) finds in an essay on the parallel lives of Carl Schmitt and Georg Lukács – the fascist and the communist admirers of Sorel – that the theme of betrayal and despair in their personal lives relates to a search for the order of a more integrated whole beyond the ambiguities and falsehoods of bourgeois society.[8] They both represent cases of the kind of anti-Gesellschaft radicalism that Helmuth Plessner (1981) had in mind when he, in his 1924 Grenzen der Gemeinschaft, warns of the anti-civilisational tendencies in the dominant intellectual and youth movements of the Weimar Republic.

But at least initially, all those cultural critics were, in essence, Romantics themselves. They may not have thought of themselves as such (although at least some of them, certainly not Schmitt, were outright fans of Romantic literature.) They were Romantics in that they wrote those far reaching programmes of which they must have sensed that they will not lead to anything. They wrote for the consumption by an audience that liked to indulge in the gesture of the defender of the Occident against the corroding influences of commercialism, liberalism, socialism, materialism and what have you – but the theories (and especially the antisemitic elements in them) had an inbuilt tendency towards resignation and despair: even if national rebirth was promoted it was generally clear that the forces of modernity would be victorious anyway. It is quite safe to play with fire if can rely on Weber’s iron cage being incombustible. While longing for it, they will be as pessimistic about the appearance of a new prophet, a charismatic leader to overturn things as Weber himself. If you believe in an all-controlling Jewish world conspiracy (or the structural equivalent: an alliance of financial capital and culture bolshevism) – how would it fail to nip the national awakening in the bud. Worse even: how stand up against a system that controls an industry producing such superior weaponry?

So in the end Kulturpessimismus was a consumerist enterprise, a line of cultural production that helped sustain its own publishing industry. In a way we therefore can understand the emergence of fascism already as, partly, a slide from consumer culture into political totalitarianism. How was it possible? The War certainly helped in creating a desire for mythical reality beyond what cultural consumption (novels, movies, paraphernalia) could satisfy. And there was the realisation that there might be a way after all. It was when the anti-modernism of the cultural pessimists turned modern and embraced technology. It was when they aligned themselves with the modern culture hero of the engineer and added to their necrophilia of decomposition and decay the necrophilia of a cult of technology; it was then  that suddenly reality was at hand and the world seemed theirs to destroy (Herf 1984). They maintained the Romantic intellectual anti-intellectualism, but exempted science and technology from that reflex to end up with, as Joseph Goebbels called it, ‘stählerne Romantik, steellike romanticism.’ (Herf 1984: 3). Taking Jeffrey Herf’s lead Eric Michaud (2005) contrasts the older generation of Kulturpessimismus represented by Oswald Spengler and his Untergang des Abendlandes with the more assertive younger generation of the Konservative Revolution represented by Ernst Jünger and his Arbeiter. He shows how the change in attitude towards technology meant that, in our terms, reactionary Romantic prose that fed into a self-satisfied quietism bemoaning the demise of Faustian man is replaced by a resurrection of that Faustian man equipped with both industrial-military discipline and hardware. Reality overtook Spengler by installing the ‘new Cesar’ in Italy, Mussolini, and subsequently rendering victorious Germany’s further brutalised version of Fascism, National Socialism – both of them embracing modern technology in their fight against modern liberal democracy.  Spengler as well as Jünger can be seen as ideological facilitators of the fascist revolution – but there clearly is a slide from the former’s cultural pessimism that reads as if written for inconsequential consumption and the latter’s relentless agitation written for action. As Michaud sums up the difference between the two:

« Tandis que Spengler, à l’arrivée des nazis, troque soudain son pessimisme culturel pour l’espoir d’un ordre nouveau, dominé par l’Allemagne, Jünger appartient déjà à cette génération montante qui prétend construire ce nouvel ordre » (Michaud 2005 : 166)

   The transition of frivolous and irresponsible reactionary Romanticism to feed into pleasant daydreams of the otherwise apolitical middle-class man who would project himself as a tragic hero, defender of the old colourful world of knights, kings and prophets, to a steeling of that Romanticism into an ideology of ruthless action has a satirical precedent. Gilbert Keith Chesterton – who was both maybe the last Romantic with a capital R and the first protagonist of romantic consumerism – reflects on what might happen if Romanticism loses its famous irony.

A dystopia of Notting Hill fascism

I have cited Chesterton, today mainly remembered for his Father Brown stories, presenting a principle of Romantic sanity that (as it is inscribed in the logic of consumerism) immunises against the very fascist impulses preserved in popular-cultural products (and just now remember my amazement of how a text so openly embracing a quasi-fascist myth of military slaughter like Iron Maiden’s Trooper – rehashing Tennyson’s Crimean War equivalent to the World War I fascist myth of Langemarck, also taken up by Ulster Loyalists – can be consumed ironically and inconsequentially). In his 1904 debut novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill Chesterton satirises his own reactionary inclinations – and reactionary he was, as Christopher Hitchens mercilessly exposed. Chesterton is interesting here as he clearly had some views that were very much in tune with emerging fascism (ethno-racial prejudice, third-way anticapitalism, antimodern yearning for the sublime) which also link back to Romantic theories of nature, history and spirituality. But the same Romantic legacy seems to have equipped him with an intellectual circuit breaker that prevented political proximity to fascist movements (he was disappointed by Mussolini and always considered Hitler a maniac – even though he could not resist the temptation to reassert his antisemitism in explaining Nazism). How to break a circuit in which Romantic ideas of nationhood and organicism on the one hand and scientific rationalism on the other reinforce each other to form a conduit towards fascism is his 1922 pamphlet Eugenics and Other Evils. While he much relies on the authority of the Church and tradition, which he sees as counterweight to the an authoritarian rationalism of the modern state, his main impulse against eugenics (and thereby against the völkisch homogeneity that nationalism and fascism aspire to) is a concern for freedom and (very Romantically: ) creativity. The freedom to procreate is the last freedom to create anything – and his issue with modern theories of eugenics is that (he is talking about the situation in Britain) if that last freedom is to fall under a scientific regime of eugenic administration, the first freedoms will not be defensible any longer as well and subsequently fall. That is to say, the small-L liberalism as sine qua non of the Romantic imagination and creativity (as diagnosed by Isaiah Berlin) overrides his aesthetic inclinations towards the old world of Catholicism.

 In the Napoleon he paints a scenario in which the Romantic plug is not fused and the idyllic-reactionary dream becomes reality. In hindsight we could say this is because the world he envisages in his future (and our past), in 1984, lacks the everyday romanticism that was present in the real 1984 Britain – consumerism. There is no evidence chance that Chesterton read Max Weber’s 1904/5 Protestantische Ethik before publishing the Napoleon nor any indication that he read it later, but the vision of an industrially sustained rational bureaucratic administration  could easily serve as an illustration to Weber’s image of an ‘iron cage’, a ‘stahlhartes Gehäuse’ that has no need whatsoever for any justification or motivation besides the efficiency of its own workings. For Weber the only conceivable ways it can every be broken up is the depletion of raw materials leading to the collapse to its material base – or a new prophet, a charismatic leader, who can channel the psychological suffering caused by being roped into the machineries of production and administration to overthrow it. (Weber 1920: 202ff.). The Napoleon of Notting Hill is the story of such a prophet.

Or rather, it is one of two prophets: the first a reactionary romantic joker and the second a post-romantic fanatic: farcical precursors of the tragedy co-instigated by the likes of Spengler and the likes of Jünger.

The joker, Auberon Quin, is part of an administrative elite in a very efficient, but dull and grey, London. The old constitutional monarchy and also democracy have been abolished for the ultimate justice of the lot, sortition. The new monarchy is based on the principle that the machine of government is based on the spotless rationality of the one-best-way and there are thus no fundamental decisions to be made; which means it does not matter who figures as ruler. All members of the administrative elites are educated to follow rational principles, so whoever wins will not make any disruptive changes.

Except that the accidental king-to-be, Auberon Quin, is dysfunctional in that he has a Romantic mind. He has a vision of grey London as a monster trying to devour him[1] – and he is given ideas of a more colourful past, stirred by an encounter with the Romantic nationalist ambassador of Nicaragua (the last country, in the novel, to be conquered by the imperialism of rationality) who glorifies the warlike and more “primitive” past of his country. Quin becomes a visionary of a more colourful reality, in true Romantic spirit. In the programmatic novel of German Romanticism, Friedrich Schlegel’s 1799 Lucinde,  we read:

„Die Menschen und was sie wollen und tun, erschienen mir, wenn ich mich daran erinnerte, wie aschgraue Figuren ohne Bewegung: aber in der heiligen Einsamkeit um mich her war alles Licht und Farbe …“ (Schlegel 1985: 13) “People and what they want and do seem to me, when I remember it, like ashen figures without movement: but in the holy solitude around me all was light and colour …”

And this becomes his mission – to make life colourful by recreating a façade of a bygone era, the aesthetisation of everyday life. Torn away from his routinised world he ventures on a crusade against boredom – the organising principle of most Romantic stories:

‘He discovered the fact that all romantics know – that adventures happen on dull days, and not on sunny ones. When the chord of monotony is stretched most tight, then it breaks with a sound like a song.’ (Chesterton 1991: 228)

Having become king by inevitable coincidence, Auberon Quin puts in place a programme of aestheticisation of political life. But this aesthetisation is yet an innocent one as Quin is not a Romantic of steel but remains, throughout the book, a real Romantic committed to the reduced reality of his politics. Without intending to change the fundamental structures of economic and administrative organisation (and oddly refraining from any real political decisions, even when urged) he implements, mainly for theatrical purposes, a parallel structure: the old London boroughs are equipped with made-up mythologies mainly based on the sound of their names. Provosts are appointed, flags invented, and ceremonial guards with halberds are founded. There are increased costs and upsets in the normal goings-on of the business of administration and the business of business, but so far it is all show. In a way it is a publicly funded ersatz for the lack in consumerism (Chesterton, like most Romantics, was not able to see the way that his kind was fostered by the capitalist market and therefore he mistakes capitalism for something completely unromantic). Here he is confronted by a more sober-minded businessman who is not happy – neither about the display of irrationality nor about the waste of taxpayers’ money:

‚ „Your jokes,“ he began, „and my property –“ and then exploded with an oath, and stopped again.

“Continue, continue,” said the King, waving his hands.

“What does it all mean?” dried the other, with a gesture of passionate rationality. “Are you mad?”

“Not in the least,” replied the King, pleasantly. “Madmen are always serious; they go mad from lack of humour. You are looking serious yourself, James.”

“Why can’t you keep it to your own private life?” exposutulated the other. “You’ve got plenty of money, and plenty of houses to play the fool in, but in the interests of the public –“

“Epigrammatic,” said the King, shaking his finger sadly at him. “None of your daring scintillations here. As to why I don’t do it in private, I rather fail to understand your question. The answer is of comparative limpidity. I don’t do it in private, because it is funnier to do it in public. You appear to think that it would be amusing to be dignified in the banquet-hall and in the street, and at my own fireside (I could procure a fireside) to keep the company in a roar. But that is what every one does. Every one is grave in public, and funny in private. My sense of humour suggests the reversal of this; it suggests that one should be funny in public, and solemn in private. I desire to make the State functions, parliaments, coronations, and so on, one roaring old-fashioned pantomime. But, on the other hand, I shut myself up alone in a small storeroom for two hours a day, where I am so dignified that I come out quite ill.’ (Chesterton 1991: 249f.)

But the aestheticisation of the political is a dangerous affair even if it is not done with fascist intent as it annuls the secularisation of the imagination – i.e. it replaces the multitude of stories, images and symbols a singular official myth. In the case of Auberon Quin it is not a replacement – he seems to be the only humorous person left in England and therefore his joke does not replace other jokes. It is also not really a singular official myth as the intention is entertainment more than mobilisation. Yet it is a slippery slope. Presenting the Society for the Recovery of London Antiquities with his crackpot version of the historical identities of the boroughs and a justification for his plan to revive them he already is ambiguous. On the one hand he wants to inspire ordinary people to let their imagination flow. On the other it is clear that their dreams are about to be nationalised and war is in the offing:

‘I will ask you to excuse me from further history, and to assist me with your encouragement in dealing with the problem which faces us to-day. Is this ancient spirit of the London townships to die out? Are our omnibus conductors and policemen to lose altogether that light which we see so often in their eyes, the dreamy light of

“Old unhappy far-off things

And battles long ago”[2]

– to quote the words of a little-known poet who was a friend of my youth? I have resolved, as I have said, so far as possible to preserve the eyes of policemen and omnibus conductors in their present | dreamy state. For what is a state without dreams.’ (Chesterton 1991: 258)

Yet, as long as everybody takes it for the joke it is meant to be (including its instigator) that myth remains a matter of an occasional carnival, the battles long ago are quasi-cinematic fun to be remembered in the displays of the halberdiers (not much different from the pointless but generally inconsequential battle re-enactment exercises of today). But there are always individuals who are inspired by the Romantic story but do not possess the Romantic skill of autonomous imaginative hedonism, i.e. the ability to switch between dream and reality that for Chesterton is the hallmark of sanity. People who are not able to manage their desire for reality, so that their Romantic/consumerist desire becomes reality. As I have argued above, such desire can become a dominant intellectual current – and often enough cases of ‘lone wolves’ develop along those lines. Carl Schmitt highlights the nationalist terrorist Karl Ludwig Sand, murderer of the conservative-cosmopolitan writer August von Kotzebue, as an example of a hot-headed young man who did not understand the occasionalist nature of the Romanticism he consumed. Schmitt (1986: 146) characterises him as paradigm of a

‘person who is not essentially a romantic can be motivated by romanticized ideas, and he can place his energy, which flows from other sources, at their disposal’

Which is, if not a self-description (his own fascism was of a colder and more callous intellectualist kind) one of the more common fascist militant. And most of the proto-fascist and fascist intellectuals did grow up on Romantic lore. But they completely and (in the case of Heidegger) famously lacked the sense of humour that is the corrective to the irresponsibility of the flight into the imagination: they were hot-headed but cold-blooded criminals of the pen, set to turn their students into an army of Sands, Horst-Wessel style fascist necrophiliacs to be sung posthumously.

This now happens in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. The generally harmless Auberon Quin inspires, by accident, a young boy to grow up with the idea of becoming the defender of the honour and life of a London borough, Notting Hill (and, ironically, as this precedes the above-mentioned plans – it is the encounter with the child that gives him the Romantic idea of a London of boroughs in the first place – the Romantics and their ideas of innocent childhood!)

‘“I’m the King of the Castle,” said the boy, truculently, and very pleased with nothing in particular.

The King was a kind-hearted man, and very fond of children, like all people who are fond of the ridiculous.

“Infant,” he said, “I’m glad you are so stalwart a defender of your old inviolate Notting Hill. Look up nightly to that peak, my child, where it lifts itself among the stars so ancient, so lonely, so unutterably Notting. So long as you are ready to die for the sacred mountain, even if it were ringed with all the armies of Bayswater –“

The King stopped suddenly, and his eyes shone.

“Perhaps,” he said, “perhaps the noblest of all my conceptions. A revival of the arrogance of the old medieval cities applied to our glorious suburbs. Clapham with a city guard. Wimbledon with a city wall. Surbiton tolling a bell to raise the citizens. West Hampstead going into battle with its own banner. It shall be done. I, the King, have said it.” and hastily presenting the boy with half a crown, remarking, “For the war-chest of Notting Hill”, he ran violently home at such a rate of speed that crowds followed him for miles. On reaching his study, he ordered a cup of coffee, and plunged into profound meditation upon the project.’ (Chesterton 1991: 252ff.)

Humour mitigates the boundaries between play and reality. Within disinterested play, as Huizinga pointed out, we are nonetheless serious. And serious the boy remains beyond the boundaries of play (having been encouraged by a serious-looking  adult). By the same inevitable accident that got Quin to be king, the boy, Adam Wayne, gets himself selected Provost of Notting Hill when grown up. And when a commercially driven infrastructure development project means that some houses in a street in Notting Hill are to be demolished the Wayne declares war (in the King’s name) on the rest of London. The joke has turned reality – and Auberon Quin cannot believe it:

‘I thought I would have a joke, and I have created a passion. I tried to compose a burlesque, and it seems to be turning halfway through into an epic. What is to be done with such a world? In the Lord’s name, wasn’t the joke broad and bold enough? I abandoned my subtle humour to amuse you, and seem to have brought tears to your eyes. What’s to be done with people when you write a pantomime for them – call the sausages classic festoons, and the policeman cut in two a tragedy of public duty? But why am I talking? Why am I asking questions of a nice young gentleman who is totally mad? What is the good of it? What is the good of anything? Oh Lord! Oh Lord!”’ (Chesterton 1991: 278)

He is in despair about the farce beginning to turn into tragedy (as sometimes, and especially in the history of fascist movements, that is the way history repeats itself).[1] He also understands what is happening here: the desire for reality in the humourless man is not mitigated by a desire for variety – it is single minded. And so:

‘While the author and the victims alike treated the whole matter as a silly public charade, this one man, by taking the whole matter seriously, sprang suddenly into a throne of artistic omnipotence. Armour, music, standards, watch-fires, the noise of drums, all the theatrical properties were thrown before him. This one poor rhymster, having burnt his own rhymes, began to live that life of open air and acted poetry of which all the poets of the earth have dreamed in vain; the life for which the Iliad is only a cheap substitute.’ (Chesterton 1991: 287)

To begin with Adam Wayne is but one man. To muster popular support so he can realise the endeavour to defend Notting Hill against the halberdiers of the less romantic and more commercially minded boroughs he tries to enlist the shop keepers . They prove immune to his romantic talk of heroic war – but like successful fascist movements tend to do he wins business support by public procurement. The war monger is a good customer. There is one exception – a significant and (by Chesterton) well-chosen one: the owner of the toyshop, Mr Turnbull. He is the representative of the boy’s imagination – and it is the boy’s imagination where reality and fantasy are not yet clearly distinct and the war games feel like, not frivolous fun, but military training: preparation for the real thing. The toymonger is enlisted by the warmonger as his chief of staff. Wayne’s argumentation makes perfect sense to Turnbull:

‘”Sir,” said Wayne, “I am going from house to house in this street of ours, seeking to stir up some sense of the danger which now threatens our city. Nowhere have I felt my duty so difficult as here. For the toy-shop keeper has to do with all that remains to us of Eden before the first wars began. You sit here meditating continually upon the wants of that wonderful time when every staircase leads to the stars, and every garden-path to the other end of nowhere. Is it thoughtlessly, do you think, that I strike the dark old drum of peril in the paradise of children? But consider a moment; do not condemn me hastily. Even that paradise itself contains the rumour or beginning of that danger, just as the Eden that was made for perfection contained the terrible tree. For judge childhood, even by your own arsenal of its pleasures. You keep bricks; you make yourself thus, doubtless, the witness of the constructive instinct older than the destructive. You keep dolls; you make yourself the priest of that divine idolatry. You keep Noah’s Arks; you perpetuate the memory of the salvation of all life as a precious, an irreplaceable thing. But do you keep only, sir, the symbols of this prehistoric sanity, this childish rationality of the earth? Do you not keep more terrible things? What are those boxes, seemingly of lead soldiers, that I see in that glass case? Are they not witnesses to that terror and beauty, that desire for a lovely death, which could not be excluded even from the immortality of Eden? Do not despise the lead soldiers, Mr. Turnbull.”

“I don’t,” said Mr. Turnbull, of the toy-shop, shortly, but with great emphasis.’ (Chesterton 1991: 297f.)

I quoted Walter Benjamin saying that, through repetition in play and story the adult doubles the pleasure and renders the terror manageable while the child creates the world anew. Child’s play is often said to repeat what historically was serious (king of the castle, cowboys and Indians etc.) – and that repetition keeps the thus coped-with alive as a potential to be realised by the man whose father the boy is. Without the reality of fascism we could read the works of the romanciers of cultural despair as quirky and laughable fantasies – but they inspired the leaders and many followers of the emergent fascist parties. Boyish fantasies turned into persecution, war and mass murder – there is nothing to laugh about these ridiculous men anymore. On a very small scale Chesterton’s novel anticipates this. Because the militarisation of what starts as a relatively minor disagreement over urban planning galvanises the masses (“masses” in relation to the size of a borough…) and because the toy-shop owner Turnbull who had been (out of boredom and in absence of consumable conflict news in a pacified world) developing strategies for the defence of the borough all along (and turns out to be a superb military leader), Notting Hill defeats London. The Empire of Notting Hill is established. From now on, all London is to take seriously the joke of Auberon Quin. The caricature of the Middle Ages that he has dreamt up for ceremonial purposes has become reality.

Adam Wayne is a very small-scale romanticist-of-steel (after all – there is none of the technological turn that happened in real fascism – the steel remains that of the sword, the shield and the halberd – and for unfathomable reasons the other boroughs fail to just machine-gun down the guard of Notting Hill). He therefore is content with the fact that he has defended Notting Hill (spilling a lot of blood along the way) and above all with having instilled the principle of serious local patriotism to the death in the other boroughs. Chesterton’s parochialism, his quaint idea of localised patriotism draws the limits of ambition whose absence Hannah Arendt saw as a defining characteristic of totalitarianism – both fascism and the perversion of socialism into fascism that is Stalinism.

Chesterton is too good a story teller not to follow through the development logic of his plot even if it turns his utopia of local nationalism into the dystopia of imperial hypernationalism. While his hero Adam Wayne is content with his achievements his subjects feel threatened by the existence of other Notting Hills around them and suppress the expressions of their local identities. Adam Wayne’s sense of honour and recognition is properly medieval – a chivalry that recognises the fellow knight and delights in the fact that he created himself worthy enemies. But there is a fundamental flaw in his medievalising aesthetic politics: He constituted Notting Hill as a nation – his subjects are not his feudal vassals but his People. And this People is defined not by allegiance to the feudal lord but by a national identity (symbolically underlined by a range of altogether ridiculous myths, rituals and symbols – but symbols, rituals and myths whose farcical nature is obscured by the fact that they refer back to real bloodshed). In this situation the enemy becomes the defining other (very much in Carl Schmitt’s sense) the war against whom maintains the existence of the political entity of the nation state. So Notting Hill constitutes itself as an Empire suffocating national development in the other boroughs – and when the likes of Knightsbridge, Kensington and Bayswater protest against the suppression of their own (equally ridiculous) national symbols the good citizens of Notting Hill decide to wage war against them. From the Herr/Knecht logic of classical imperialism they slide over into the logic of Begierde: Adam Wayne does not understand:

‘‘“What is this, my people?” he said. “Is it altogether impossible to make a thing good without it immediately insisting on being wicked? The glory of Notting Hill in having achieved its independence, has been enough for me to dream of for many years, as I sat beside the fire. Is it really not enough for you, who have had so many other affairs to excite and distract you? Notting Hill is a nation. Why should it condescend to be a mere Empire? You wish to pull down the statue of General Wilson, which the men of Bayswater have so rightly erected in Westbourne Grove. Fools! Who erected that statue? Did Bayswater erect it? No. Notting Hill erected it. Do you not see that it is the glory of our achievement that we have infected the other cities with the idealism of Notting Hill? It is we who have created not only our own side, but both sides of this controversy. O too humble fools, why should you wish to destroy your enemies? You have done something more to them. You have created your enemies.’ (Chesterton 1991: 364)

Correct – they have created their enemies, like all good nationalists. But enemies are not there so you can enjoy the vista; they are there to be destroyed so the self of the nation is confirmed. One thing that Wayne (and behind him Chesterton) does understand is that Begierde is self destructive. Even if you win in the end you do not have an outside, an other, to reflect your self (hence Hegel concludes this situation needs supersession, hence the story of lord and bondsman that brings an end to life-and-death struggles). but of course: you are more likely to lose because the designated others will team up against the mortal threat of that lethal desire.

The two reactionary Catholics, Schmitt and Chesterton, are not so different as both dream up worlds of friend/enemy divides – but the latter is equipped with a Romantic imagination that allows him to think through, playfully, the consequences of implementing certain policies and ideologies, recognises their madness and thus resists the temptation to engage in any kind of successful politics (his must have known that the idyllic utopia of distributism which he promoted would not find much of a following – unless it is made a fig leaf for something completely different as in the pseudo-distributism of Margaret Thatcher). Schmitt, in contrast, as anti-Romantic “heroically” accepts the criminal nature of his commitment to action (he relativises it by declaring all action equally criminal) (Mehring 2005).

In general, unlike J. G. Ballard suggests in Kingdom Come, there does not seem to be an inbuilt slide from consumerism into fascism. But that does not mean it cannot happen. The signs are there. As Natan Sznaider argues – if the pacifying worlds of consumption are themselves are felt to be under siege by the excluded (part of Ballard’s scenario) the consumers might turn aggressive.  The way, for example, in which the attempts of about 3,000 migrants to somehow get from Calais to Dover is  played up to a national emergency threatening a national way of life (tourism) and posing an existential threat (to standards of living), is worrying.  The fact that demagogues who call for gunboats to intercept them, comparing them to vermin, get space in high circulation newspapers may mean that future lone wolves like Breivik will be less lonely in their pursuit to re-create Europe along the lines of some twisted version of Narnia.

I remain, however, equally convinced that there is an egalitarian-libertarian potential in consumerism that makes it at least as conducive to supporting the ‘constructive forces of humanity’ (i.e. what Horkheimer rendered Benjamin’s ‘Kommunismus’ as) who respond to the fascist aesthetisation of politics by a politisation of the aesthetic. I would take this to mean for an insistence on maximising the possibilities of all to order their own lives into an aesthetic whole, a style of life, that realises their individual potential in a society of free people. A vision that situationists like Debord (1992) formulated – wrongly, I think,against consumerism (see Varul 2015).


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Wernick, Andrew (1991): Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression, London: SAGE.

[3] Marinetti whom Benjamin uses as case in point for his claim that fascism thrives on an aesthetisation of the political

[2] Eins ist Noth. – Seinem Charakter ‚Stil geben‘ – eine grosse und seltene Kunst! – Sie übt Der, welcher Alles übersieht, was seine Natur an Kräften und Schwächen bietet, und es dann einem künstlerischen Plane einfügt, bis ein Jedes als Kunst und Vernunft erscheint und auch die Schwäche noch das Auge entzückt. Hier ist eine grosse Masse zweiter Natur hinzugetragen worden, dort ein Stück Natur abgetragen: – beidemal mit langer Uebung und täglicher Arbeit daran. Hier ist das Hässliche, welches sich nicht abtragen liess, versteckt, dort ist es in’s Erhabene umgedeutet. Vieles Vage, der Formung Widerstrebende ist für Fernsichten aufgespart und ausgenutzt worden: – es soll in das Weite und Unermessliche hinaus winken. Zuletzt, wenn das Werk vollendet ist, offenbart sich, wie es der Zwang des selben Geschmacks war, der im Grossen und Kleinen herrschte und bildete: ob der Geschmack ein guter oder ein schlechter war, bedeutet weniger, als man denkt, – genug, dass es Ein Geschmack ist! – Es werden die starken herrschsüchtigen Naturen sein, welche in einem solchen Zwange, in einer solchen Gebundenheit und Vollendung unter dem eigenen Gesetz ihre feinste Freude geniessen; die Leidenschaft ihres gewaltigen Wollens erleichtert sich beim Anblick aller stilisirten Natur, aller besiegten und dienenden Natur; auch wenn sie Paläste zu bauen und Gärten anzulegen haben, widerstrebt es ihnen, die Natur frei zu geben. Umgekehrt sind es dei schwachen, ihrer selber nicht mächtigen Charaktere, welche die Gebundenheit des Stils hassen: sie fühlen, dass, wenn ihnen dieser bitterböse Zwang auferlegt würde, sie unter ihm gemein werden müssten: – sie werden Sclaven, sobald sie dienen, sie hassen das Dienen. Solche Geister – es können Geister ersten Ranges sein – sind immer darauf aus, sich selber und ihre Umgebungen als freie Natur – wild, willkürlich, phantastisch, unordentlich, überraschend  zu gestalten oder auszudeuten: und sie thun wohl daran, weil sie nur so sich selber wohlthun! Denn Eins ist Noth: dass der Mensch seine Zufriedenheit mit sich erreiche – sei es nun durch diese oder jene Dichtung und Kunst: nur dann erst ist der Mensch überhaupt erträglich anzusehen! Wer mit sich unzufrieden ist, ist fortwährend bereit, sich dafür zu rächen: wir Anderen werden seine Opfer sein, und sei es auch nur darin, dass wir immer seinen hässlichen Anblick zu ertragen haben. Denn der Anblick des Hässlichen macht schlecht und düster.“

eKGWB/FW-290 — Die fröhliche Wissenschaft: § 290. Erste Veröff. 10/09/1882.

[1] ‘The serial killer has become a dominant symbol since the 1960s because the act of serial murder, specifically involving bodily transgression, stands as a signifier of new forms of social intercourse. The serial killer symbolizes the possibilities of agency in an era of multinational capital. Here social interaction is not constrained by the institutionalized governmentality which produces limited and controlled interactions between egos, whose drives remained repressed. In this social order, through the medium of informational commodities, humans expose themselves to each other in ecstatic moments of intercourse. The rise of the serial killer denotes a novel notion of the self and a new basis of social interaction between selves. Just as the modern self cohered with the rise of state bureaucracy, the serial killer is consonant with the emergent institutional reality of multinational capitalism. The serial killer signifies ecstatic, commodified transgression through which the self in postmodern society is constituted.’ (King, 2006: 122)

[3] ‘… eine Alltagsreaktion der Massen in Europa. Dies hängt damit zusammen, daß die meisten Menschen im gesellschaftlichen Verkehr nicht denken, sondern glauben, sie wüßten, wie es funktioniert. Marx hat mit dem Warenfetisch, der Verkehrung von Gesellschaft und Natur, nur eine Stufe im Ideologiebildungsprozeß aufgezeigt. An der Situation des erwachsenen einzelnen Warenbesitzers läßt sich aber erkennen, daß der Warenfetisch im Vorbewußten und Unbewußten weiter bearbeitet wird. Am Schluß steht nicht rationales oder irrationales Bewußtsein des Einzelnen, sondern eine Alltagsreligion, die Massen teilen. Der einzelne Warenbesitzer wird nämlich im Warentausch nicht ausschließlich mit Waren konfrontiert, sondern zusätzlich mit dem gesellschaftlichen Gewalttabu und der damit bedingten Verletzung seiner Souveränität. Psychische und gesellschaftliche Realität treffen and diesem Punkte konfliktuös zusammen. Um diesen Konflikt zu lösen, zumindest zu beschwichtigen, bedarf es in Europa der Alltagsreligion des Antisemitismus.‘ (Claussen 1994: 48)

[4] (for more detail, especially in relation to consumerism, see the sections on ‘probation’ here and here)

[5] While there is utility and also a scope for recognition in play, there is no honour. Honour is linked, as Peter Berger (1983: 173) observes, to institutional roles in which the individual finds their identity

There is no room for play here unless it is strictly tied into the preparation for such roles. Such play is mutilated in the culturally generative potential that Huizinga had attested because the trying out of different roles, the crossing of social boundaries that persist outside the game zone, remains prohibited. It is clear that in a capitalist society honour is obsolete. Berger, evidently referring to Helmuth Plessner’s philosophic-antrhopolgical reflection on the role concept (Plessner 1976: 66), argues that it has been replaced with a notion of dignity which seeks to preserve the person as independent of such roles, as behind the institutional masks. As Plessner says, humans are always more than their roles, but this potential can be denied by strenuous efforts. I have argued that the differentiation from institutionalised role identities is itself instituted in consumer culture.

[6] In many ways consumerism constitutes the insertion of pockets of infancy into adult life. In the beginning there was an acute sense of this: the consumption of Romantic cultural products (novels, mainly) and then consumerism in general was confined to women as they were deemed to be of a reduced status of adulthood (the notion of  husbands as combined lovers/fathers of their wives in bourgeois culture) – and the critique of novel reading, escapism etc. Men only participated in it as part of the controlled regression into childhood which, according  to Talcott Parsons (1956) functioned to balance out the strictly functional attitude men had to take in their work roles. Think of the famous scene in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House where Nora confronts her husband with the truth that she has been reduced to a play thing all along and hence, in the less-than-real world of bourgeois marriage, has been denied adulthood:

And you have always been so kind to me. But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.

Ironically, the incomplete liberation of middle-class women, which has earned them (still reduced) adulthood through participation in the labour market, their husbands have been ‘regressing’ as it were and have become more playful. With the quasi-Hegelian reconciliation of capitalism and counter-culture in consumerism regression has become the norm. The openness of infancy has indeed become an important element in the general intellect, in that aspect of labour power where capitalists can just presume the existence of abilities as they are pervasively present in the population. I mean the ability to ‘play through’ things, to ‘play’ with ideas – a certain notion of youthful ‘creativity’ (e.g. Frank 1997) whose ownership goes over into the employer’s possession to deploy in the business of accumulation (Virno 2004).

[7] Hegel in this respect ignores gender and the fact that women in this society do not have the freedom that comes with being a market citizen. Parsons (1956) who (unwittingly) very much follows Hegel’s lead in his ideal type of the nuclear family in contrast over-genders this relation, but by doing so (again unwittingly) reveals the flaw in the construction. When making the case that love-based marriage means structural equality between husband and wife despite different role assignments (instrumental versus emotional), Parsons states: “Put very schematically, a mature woman can love, sexually, only a man who takes his full place in the masculine world, above all its occupational aspect, and who takes responsibility for a family; conversely, the mature man can only love a woman who is really an adult, a full wife to him and mother to his children, and an adequate ‘person’ in her extrafamilial roles.” You can see the flaw, what I called ‘structural hypocrisy’ of the nuclear family: there are no extrafamilial roles for the wife/mother – that’s a male privilege.

[8] A lesson to learn from those parallels – both in tragic outlook on the personal and the search for order and beauty in the political – between a fascist and a communist intellectual is how the shift from the critique of the political economy (or more broadly the “social question”) to a cultural critique of capitalism moves communist theory closer to fascist sentiment. If Axel Honneth (2008) manages to enlist Heidegger in his attempt not only to revive but to fortify Lukàcs critique of reification in the name of authenticity then this tells us more about what is wrong with Lukàcs than what be right about Heidegger. If Eßbach (1995: 151f.) is right (and I think he very much is) in stating that for Lukàcs serving the Bolshevik party always also was to beautify the political, then he falls under Benjamin’s verdict and thus should be regarded as a fascisising influence on the communist movement.

[1] Fritz Stern (1963: xi) begins his seminal work on Kulturpessimismus, his Cultural Politics of Despair, with an epigraph by Sorel’s friend and fellow nationalist/socialist proto-fascist Charles Péguy:

‘Tout commence en mystique et tout finit en politique’

[2] [editor’s note:] ‘These lines are from William Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper”, vv.19-20.’

[1] ‘For some reason that will never be understood until all souls are judged (if they are ever judged; the idea was at this time classed with fetish worship) he did not join his two companions, but walked steadily behind them. The day was dull, their dress was dull, everything was dull; but in some odd impulse he walked through street after street, through district after district, looking at the backs of the two men, who would have swung round at the sound of his voice. Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time. So the short Government official looked at the coat-tails of the tall Government officials, and through street after street, and round corner after corner, saw only coat-tails, coat-tails, and again coat-tails – when, he did not in the least know why, something happened to his eyes. Two black dragons were walking backwards in front of him. Two black dragons were looking at him with evil eyes. The dragons were walking backwards it was true. But they kept their eyes on him no less. The eyes which he saw were, in truth, only the two buttons at the back of a frock-coat: perhaps some traditional memory of their meaningless character gave this half-witted prominence to their gaze. The slit between the tails was the nose-line of | the monster: whenever the tails flapped in the winter wind the dragons licked their lips. It was only a momentary fancy, but the small clerk found it imbedded in his soul ever afterwards. He never could again think of men in frock-coats except as dragons walking backwards.’ (Chesterton 1991: 227f.)

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