on the schmitt fest

Long Sunday is hosting another symposium, this one on Carl Schmitt. We found the last symposium on Gayatri Spivak thought provoking – but our own preoccupations at the moment don’t jibe with Schmitt. We are bored with Schmitt talk. We disagree with the motivation for it – that is, that there is a philosophy behind the fascist state like there is behind the communist state. While Mussolini actually had your usual pundit-philosophical mind and liked people to see the collected works of Nietzsche in his office, he operated on the hop; as for Hitler, fascism in Germany was a matter of the continuation of institutional changes, for instance Van Seeckt’s in the military, combined with the reinflation caused by military keynesianism. The institutional innovations really did have a future – and then of course there was the mad streetdog stew of bigotries.

The funny thing about Heidegger applying, basically, for the job of National Socialistic philosopher is how incomprehensible his gibberish must have seemed, next to the flow of clear spring water coming out of Alfred Rosenberg. Such simplicity! Decadence comes from the Jews. Strength is good. A leader is good. A strong leader is gooder and gooder. Etc. Save for the pathological aggression and the (by this time) eccentric version of social Darwinism transposed to ‘races’, this is the kind of pap that would pass for common sense at any chamber of commerce meeting in Sinclair Lewis’ America. The job Heidegger applied for, in other words, was much better filled by dropout.

This, at least, is how we see that history. Nor do we see Schmittian themes as especially pertinent in America or Europe at the moment. Schmitt’s political philosophy actually seems more suited to another moment in German history: the beginning of the West German government. In that moment, a nation in which the bureaucracy and court system were still full of former Nazis did need a philosophical justification that went beyond the expediency of defeat. And that was the Schmittian moment, if there ever was one.

Now of course, all of this all might just come down to our idiosyncratic blindness to Schmitt’s je ne sais quoi.

Anyway, one of Schmitt’s mentors does interest us more and more – Georg Simmel. Institutions were the genius of the Nazi state; the institutionalization of war was its legacy to the post WWII world. We were reading Simmel the other day about war and socialization. Simmel was, like many a German intellectual, swept up in the war fervor of 1914. His pupil Ernst Bloch was shocked by Simmel’s idea that the war would lead to cultural elevation, and broke with him. Simmel wrote to Weber that Lukacs didn’t get it – a slight Lukacs, who indeed didn’t and also broke with the Webers over the war, resented.

Simmel gave a talk in 1916 in Vienna (surely the object of some derisive gloss by Kraus in the Fackel) in which he lays out his critique of modernity and his speculation that war, war, war is the answer. The critique of modernity derives from his analysis in the Philosophy of Money. Here it is in extremely compressed form:

“Thus every attitude that it is desirable to cultivate is bound to the form of a end and a means. But this But this attitude is split into countless partial orientations. Life is composed out of actions and productivitiess, for which a unified direction is recognizable, or even exists. only partially.”

Simmel, like Marx, was impressed by the new social distances capitalism created – the distance between the making of the product and the consumer, for instance. These distances were ingrained in the habits and impressions of everyday life. It is as if that life absorbed a huge omission – the omission of the actual means of production –in its everyday consciousness. In this way, real life moves closer to the movie and the movie to the mall, insofar as movies are enacted around the props of opulence that come from somewhere elsewhere – that are the givens -- and the department stores were a staging of those props for the movie goer. The way life is conducted in a movie becomes the ideal for conducting life. At least, this is one way of understanding Simmel’s view of the peculiar character of alienated modernity. Here is a world in which final goals, or the ends of man, were hidden behind the middle elements of the series of means to those goals. Most notably, of course, that middle series is governed by money. The crisis of culture comes about as the individual falls behind the structures he – or at least Man, der Mensch, the Paul Bunyan of German philosophy – has created. In a telling phrase, Simmel writes:

“The total hastiness, the exterior greediness and search for enjoyment of this age are only consequences and reaction phenomena, because the personal values are sought on a level in which they simply don’t exist: that technical progress without anything else is valued as cultural progress, that in the mental doman the methods often are valued as something holy and more important that the substantial results, that the will to money leaves the things, of which it is the means of payment, far behind it; this all proves the gradual submersion of ends and goals through means and ways.”

(Sorry if those semi-colons lead us on a bit of a wild goose chase – Simmel is a weird writer to translate).

Into this world comes the war. So, what does war do? Well, war has an odd authenticity, according to Simmel. In war, the inverted world rights itself – once again we can properly sort the means and the ends out. Modernity’s ripped soul – its ability to add book to book and technique to technique in a growing network of means, and the consequence obsolescence of ends -- is overcome in battle. He even makes this odd claim – although not so odd for anyone who has seen a Hollywood war film in the past couple of decades:

"War seems to shrink that rip [in modern culture] from two sides. Behind the soldier sinks the whole apparatus of culture, not only because he must actually dispense with it, but instead because the sense and challenge of existence in war relies on a performance, the moral consciousness [Wertbewusstsein] of which does not first take a detour through objects.

His force and morale, skill and endurance are immediately authenticated as the values of his existence, and obviously the ‘war machine’ has a whole other, and infinitely more living relationship to what he serves than the machinery of the factory."

Simmel’s claims have been routinized in the U.S. He could be writing ad copy for the Army, or commenting on the scene in Full Metal Jacket where it is explained that the rifle is your wife. This utopia of immediate ends and authentic objects should be put in context, however. Simmel’s idea that the ends of man could be found in the trenches was founded on a hopelessly out of date image of war. In last fall’s War in History there is a passage in Matthias Strohn’s essay on von Seeckt that makes the class coordinates of German military formation clear. The drivers for the Germans were, pari passu, the drivers that were in place in the remaking of the post-Vietnam American army:

“However, Seeckt drew different lessons from the war. In his campaigns he had seen that small, well-trained and mobile forces could overcome an opponent who was numerically stronger. Moreover, he realized that the army’s enlargement in the pre-war years and then during the war had had impacts on both the military and the political value of the army. The Volksheer’s discipline and morale had proven fragile, and Seeckt was worried about the inherent dangers of democratization. This was of course not an entirely new point of view. The question of parliamentary influence and democratization had been at the core of the Prussian state crisis of the 1860s, and only the arms race of 1912–14 and the general staff’s war plans had finally convinced the Kaiser and the Prussian war ministry of the necessity of the nation in arms.11 They had believed that the army should be recruited from the
more conservative rural people, instead of drafting the towns’ workers, who would bring socialist ideas and thus social unrest into the army. Seeckt was therefore in accordance with the pre-war opinion of the military when he stated that the masses, especially the cities’ proletariat, were lacking in military spirit. As brilliant and original as Seeckt was in his thinking, he was still a product of his class and highly critical of democratic ideas.

Moreover, the war had shown that the short training of conscripts could no longer meet the demands of modern, increasingly technical warfare, and it therefore appeared logical to Seeckt that the longserving, professional soldier would be the ‘more valuable warrior’.”

Seeckt's doctrine is undergoing a bit of a crisis in Iraq. And if LI has anything to do with it, democracy's revenge will be to squeeze the supply of professional soldiers until the army yells uncle.