Thanks to Gil Bailie of the Florilegia Institute, I recently had the opportunity to read Nicholas Boyle’s Who Are We Now? (Notre Dame, 1998). Boyle’s survey of the contemporary historical situation, its (mostly German) intellectual background, and its ethical exigencies illustrates, beyond the writer’s impressive intelligence and erudition, and in a mode very nearly complementary to Girard’s mimetic vision, the great anthropological insight of which Christian thought is capable. This collection of ten essays ranging in subject-matter from the critique of Thatcherism to the interpretation of modern poetry expresses a coherent vision of our era, centrally informed by the thought of Hegel, whom Boyle sees as fundamentally a Christian thinker. This brilliant analysis suffers only from the limitations inherent in any non-generative anthropology.
Boyle begins his book with a couple of topical attacks on Thatcherism, defined as the surrender of all traditional values to those of the global market under the cover of an illusory façade of nationalism. His critique sounds at first like a refined version of the usual liberal anti-capitalist polemic, written in language reminiscent of the Communist Manifesto:
Given the sharpness of his historical analysis, I find it unfortunate that Boyle ignores the defining feature of consumer society, theorized by Baudrillard and others, and already visible to Flaubert: the productivity of consumption as an expression of mimetic desire. Boyle’s vision of consumption as an insatiable quest, stimulated by advertising, for new sensual gratifications is virtually identical to that of the Frankfurt School, except that the inexorable market forces that drive the process do not serve Capitalism, but, at worst, capitalists encouraged to be greedier than they need be by callous politicians in the Thatcher mode.
It is misleading to associate the condition in which “everyone works” with Marx’s notion of proletarianization, defined as the reduction of the human individual to a uniformly minimal state of existence in which every calorie beyond bare survival is expended in producing the “labor power” of the next generation. Although the loss of status implicit in Marx’s term may reflect the self-consciousness of the European imperial bourgeoisie, the transition to a social model in which all are expected both to work and consume might with more justification be called “Americanization”–assimilation to the mode of national life that puts the greatest, rather than the least, stress on personal identity. Our “proletarianized” society has replaced the nineteenth century’s crude bourgeois-proletarian dichotomy–which Boyle astutely sees as dependent, in its mature form, on the even cruder homeland-colony dichotomy–with a far more interactive and polymorphic, but no less real, system of mimetically driven subcultural distinctions.
The non-mimetic concept of desire that distorts Boyle’s vision of the global market inspires an economistic vision of history surprising in a committed humanist. Boyle is surely right to describe the agonies of world history since the late nineteenth century as the painful transition between European bourgeois empire and the emerging global market. But are these modes of human interaction best described in economic terms? Was modern colonialism a fundamentally economic process, as Lenin affirmed in his 1916 Imperialism: The Last Stage of Capitalism? Boyle hints at the contrary when he refers to the colonies as providing an outlet for “the disturbed, the displaced, and the ambitious” (114) from the homeland. The economic value of colonies is not a simple given; French colonialism was conducted on the assumption that they cost more than they brought in. They provided for the exportation, not primarily of goods, but of resentments, both literally and symbolically. Not only could the dissatisfied make their fortune in the colonies, but the metropolitan population’s self-image was raised by its participation, however remote, in a master-slave relationship with “subaltern” peoples. Colonialism cannot be reduced to the kind of brutal exploitation that took place in the Belgian Congo; the “white man’s burden” was not a mere fig-leaf for oppression. What is wrong with unequal relationships is not that they are cruel and oppressive, but simply that they are unequal.
The Second World War, which first made this timeless intuition into a controlling principle, is the crux of the conflict between Boyle’s economism and his humanism. On the one hand, Boyle sees WWII as a phase of the “75 years’ war” between 1914 and 1989 that marked the transition to the new global era. On the other hand, the war’s proximate cause is Nazism, which Boyle, unwilling to hold Nietzsche blameless for his intellectual heirs, understands as a perverted Nietzscheism. Boyle attributes to Nietzsche the invention of the pernicious “middle mode” so characteristic of post-modern discourse: the deliberate confusion of referential and metaphoric language that reduces truth to will-to-power. Yet he does little to clarify Nazism’s place in history.
We may temper Boyle’s fundamental point concerning nineteenth-century colonial empires with our interpretation of colonialism as primarily a means for exporting the resentments generated by the bourgeois economy during its transition from the era of “primitive accumulation” that impoverished the working class to modern consumer society. During this period, universal suffrage was the political complement of the economy’s integration of the homeland proletariat into the market as an actor/consumer. This analysis suggests that the stunted nature of Germany’s colonial empire, in contrast with those of England or France, was the precipitating factor in WWI. The difference was one of degree rather than kind, just as was the marginally greater “Prussian” brutality; Renoir’s Grand Illusion is the great esthetic statement of this fundamental symmetry.
The loss of WWI stripped Germany of her colonies while provoking the runaway inflation that ruined her bourgeoisie. That the resentments thus generated were the force behind Hitler’s rise is obvious enough. But his obsessive focus on the Jews, which the Nazis themselves, before taking power, felt called upon to explain in posters headed: “Why We Are Anti-Semitic,” requires explanation. The Holocaust is the ultimate form of the modern anti-Semitism that evolved step by step with Europeanembourgeoisement: the Jews, the archetypal stateless nation, were made the fantastic Subject of the subjectless, transnational marketplace. But Boyle’s reminder of the importance of colonial empire suggests an additional factor. It was only after the war against the Jews that colonialism lost its legitimacy, which had scarcely been questioned in the course of the war itself, where colonial soldiers were required to serve the interests of the mother country.
It may sound crude to suggest that the Germans, deprived after WWI of the few colonies they had managed to acquire, chose the Jews to fill the same “subaltern” slot. Yet I think this rapprochement holds the key to the proper understanding both of the causes of the Holocaust and of its effects on postwar victimary sensibility. The particular virulence of Nazi anti-Semitism arises from its being the ultimate form of the abstract, “Germanic” substitute for colonialism that had been an important theme of German/Austrian politics since the 1870s. By exporting their resentment not to a far-off land but to a “nation” inextricably meshed with their own, the Nazis revealed the immorality of the institutional relations that supported this exportation.
Colonialism is ostensibly benevolent, or, at the very least, dictated by a notion of some kind of useful interaction between colonizers and colonized. Nazism reduces the colonial relation to what will henceforth be seen as its essence: victimization. Thus, where the worst type of colonialism worked the colonized to death for the colonizers’ financial gain, the Nazis extracted financial gain from the Jews, down to hair and gold teeth, as a by-product of their death. As a result, if Nazi anti-Semitism began as a substitute for bourgeois empire, after the Holocaust, bourgeois empire seemed to be a substitute for Nazi anti-Semitism.
It is in this context that we must situate what Boyle sees as the politico-philosophical failure of post-Nietzschean philosophy–in particular, that of Heidegger. The existentialist world is a world without exchange. Where the nineteenth-century realist novelists Boyle admires explored the means by which the exchange process itself absorbed the resentments it generated, twentieth-century German thought was driven to project these resentments onto the metaphoric sacred of the “middle mode” of discourse.
The possession of empire permits an ironic detachment with respect to the exchange relations of the local society; the lack of control over one’s own destiny in the market is mitigated both materially and morally by the superior status of the colonizer. In the absence of empire, this posture is unavailable; the marketplace is seen as a realm either of incomprehensible sacrifice (Kafka) or of a forgetting of Being unworthy of the “resolute” soul. Through the existentialist disdain for das Man and his “values” we substitute our individual rejection of the zero-sum game of market status for the socially guaranteed superiority of colonizer to colonized. However, inasmuch as the colonial’s superiority is not mere fancy but founded on real institutions, so, too, the “resolute” individual’s superiority to the world of exchange calls for institutional expression, namely, in a German society obsessed with its loathing for those who incarnate for it the spirit of the marketplace.
Boyle’s laudable aim is to define an ethic for our time that will prepare us to define ourselves transnationally, as citizens of the world. I share his view that the evolving European community, bureaucratic and amorphous as it may be, is the most significant extant model of post-state political structure. I wonder, however, particularly in the light of September 11, whether the path to our future survival does not require of us a more positive defense of “Thatcherist” consumer society as the only effective model for peacefully integrating within the global marketplace the resentments that it will never cease to generate.