The spiritual crisis of humanity and the endless struggle

by Jerome Roos on November 7, 2011

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From Europe to the world, it is time to break the chains of weariness and rise to the challenge of our times. The future of humanity depends on it.

The capitalist endgame that is being played out in Greece – and Europe more broadly – is a microcosm of the challenges facing humanity as a whole. As the world economy teeters on the brink of collapse, we are reminded every day that Europe’s crisis is much more than merely a financial, economic or even political crisis. At rock bottom, the tragedy of the failing European project is a symptom of the profound spiritual crisis facing humanity today.

The European Union, which despite its many troubles remains the largest economy in the world, has often been portrayed as the very pinnacle of modern progress. Francis Fukuyama, author of the End of History, once argued that he saw the European model of economically integrated social welfare states as the single greatest achievement of human evolution. But today, this rudderless behemoth is steadily drifting towards the abyss of its own destruction. Not since the days of WWII has its future looked so bleak.

Husserl and the Crisis of European Humanity

Back in the 1930s, faced with the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism and the threat of war, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl sought to explain the underlying dynamics that had given rise to Europe’s crisis. For Husserl, the crisis had its roots in the “mistaken rationalism” of the Enlightenment and the corruption of the great legacy of the Greek philosophers. As scientists scrambled to apply the objective laws of nature onto the realm of social relations, the mental lifeworld of the individual was brutally uprooted.

This, in turn, fed into a widespread sense of alienation and spiritual despondence, paving the way for the fascist romanticism of Husserl’s one-time disciple, Martin Heidegger, and the rise of totalitarian strongmen like Hitler, Franco and Mussolini. As Erich Fromm, the great psychoanalyst, later observed in The Fear of Freedom, it was precisely the naturalization of social relations in capitalist society – the individualistic laws that were meant to set us free – that produced the xenophobic backlash of National Socialism.

The Irrational Rationality of Market Fundamentalism

Is this not frighteningly similar to what we are witnessing today, as Europe battles to extricate itself from its crisis through the ‘irrational rationality’ of even more free-market dogma? Is it not the naturalization of the financial crisis – the neoliberal illusion that the economy operates according to a strict set of natural laws – combined with the resurgence of xenophobic nationalism that has led us to this bifurcation point? As governments crack down on welfare, immigration, culture, education and free speech everywhere, are we not staring into the face of barbarism once more?

The great irony of today’s crisis from a Husserlian perspective is that, this time around, we are not only perverting the spiritual greatness of the ancient Greek philosophers, but we are also repressing the free will of their modern Greek descendants — all in the name of a radical objectivist conception of society. In the process, we are destroying not only the Greek economy, but also the great Greek artifact of democracy. Even more tragically, we are doing so under the very gaze of the Acropolis — strangling European civilization right where it was born some 3,000 years ago.

The Uneasy Suspension between Hope and Despair

The atmosphere today is one of mixed hope and despair. Hope for a better future, epitomized by the global revolutionary wave of 2011 and the worldwide demands for human dignity, social justice and real democracy — but simultaneously a profound sense of despair about our short-term prospects. Israel and its allies in the US and UK are stepping up preparations for an attack on Iran, and after the Greek government last week sacked its entire military leadership, rumors are rife of an impending military coup there.

Meanwhile, Demos just released a report warning that the far-right has been on the rise across Europe; a fascist terrorist murdered dozens of youths in normally quaint Norway; German media are propping up their racist campaigns against the Greek people; and the great centers of European civilization – Athens, Rome and London – have all burst into flames as disengaged youths ran riot through the streets. Millions of people are being pushed into abject poverty from Coimbra to Karpathos. Our civilization is rapidly crumbling.

The Specter of Barbarism Haunts Europe

The conclusion is terrifying. As the economic crisis intensifies and the legitimation crisis of liberal democracy deepens, history appears to be repeating itself. Staring down into the abyss, we are confronted with a spiritual void of pure despair and despondence. Paul Krugman has already pointed out that, in terms of economic policy, 2011 is like 1937 all over. What he failed to mention is that, just like in 1937, totalitarianism and war are also lurking on the horizon again. These are very worrying times indeed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently invoked the specter of war to impress the idea upon her people that this crisis must be resolved along the lines of strict economic laws. The frightening part is that, if our leaders keep pursuing the disastrous policies they are pushing today, their fear-mongering and blackmail might eventually turn out to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the late 1920s, no one suspected that Europe would ever go back to war again. They were wrong then. We might be wrong again.

How the European Union Tore Us Apart

The greatest irony of all is that, after centuries of strife and fratricide, European integration was meant to bring us closer together. But this noble liberal project, once a symbol of European ‘greatness’, was rapidly hijacked by the dark forces of finance capital and its neoliberal intelligentsia in university departments across the continent. Instead of bringing us closer together, the European Union has torn us ever further apart. Indirect bailouts of the European banking sector are pitching Germans against Greeks, the North against the South.

All the while, a tiny cosmopolitan elite continues to profit from the misery of the rest. Our leaders, in turn, are desperately trying to hide this inconvenient truth from the masses: the euro merely serves the few at the expense of the many. It has depressed the exchange rate of the Northern exporters, providing German industrialists and French financiers with an unfair competitive advantage, but while the Southerners indebted themselves to keep Germany’s industrial engine running, the wages of German workers stagnated as well.

The Lack of Leadership and the Want of Greatness

In the process, this crisis has not only laid bare the limits of parliamentary democracy under conditions of deep economic integration, but also the painful lack of leadership within our political establishment. The behavior of our political elites is not only profoundly unjust, it is also shockingly incompetent. Merkel and Sarkozy are not only poor democrats – they are terribly incompetent capitalists, too. Their persistent pandering to the financial sector over the past two years is now threatening to bring down the entire system.

And so we arrive back at the bifurcation point between hope and despair. As the system faces collapse, the question arises which of these two forces will prevail. Will we witness a feared re-run of the 1930s and a lapse back into a state of barbarism? Or will the spiritual greatness of the revolutionary movements prevail? As Walter Benjamin reminded us, “every fascism is an index of a failed revolution.” An enormous responsibility therefore rests upon our shoulders. We simply cannot afford to fail.

The Only Escape from the Crisis of European Existence

Just four years before the outbreak of WWII and the last descent of Europe into utter barbarity, Husserl delivered his famous Vienna lecture of 1935. Persecuted by the Nazis and freshly betrayed by Heidegger at home, Husserl’s message to his fellow Europeans was stark but prophetic:

There are only two escapes from the crisis of European existence: the downfall of Europe in its estrangement from its own rational sense of life, its fall into hostility towards the spirit and into barbarity: or the rebirth of Europe from the spirit of philosophy through a heroism of reason that overcomes naturalism once and for all. Europe’s greatest danger is weariness. If we struggle against this greatest of all dangers as “Good Europeans” with the sort of courage that does not fear even an infinite struggle, then out of the destructive blaze of lack of faith, the smoldering fire of despair over the West’s mission for humanity, the ashes of great weariness, will rise up the phoenix of a new life-inwardness and spiritualization as the pledge of a great and distant future for man: for the spirit alone is immortal.

From European Humanity to Global Humanity

The only difference today is that we can no longer afford to think of ourselves as Europeans alone. Globalization has extended the reach of finance capital to every nook and cranny of the planet. The forces of fiscal extortion that are leading Greece to ruin are the same as the forces of food speculation that are condemning millions of Africans and Indians to starvation. The forces of mindless consumerism alienating the European spirit are the same as the forces of merciless exploitation undermining Chinese and Congolese dignity.

Similarly, the ‘invisible hand’ of the Wall Street-Treasury complex that forced this crisis onto us is merely the mirror image of the military-industrial complex that now threatens to draw us into another disastrous Middle Eastern war. The homeland we gave to the Jewish people after we brutalized them in the last European crisis, has become the principal battlefield for the next one. More than ever before, the fate of humanity now rests upon our ability to pursue a struggle that, in Slavoj Žižek’s words, is even “more internationalist and universalist than the universality of global capital.”

Rekindling the Revolutionary Spirit and the Endless Struggle

This crisis is structural and global to begin with, but it ultimately cannot be overcome without a radical reassertion of our spiritual greatness as conscious agents of social change. For too long, we have allowed ourselves to be misled by a false sense of humility and resignation. For too long, we have indulged in the narcissistic pursuit of self-interest at the expense of our fellow human beings – and ourselves. The time has come to get “mad as hell” and shout out to those in power: “I’m a human being, goddammit, my life has value!

Subcomandante Marcos once wrote that “the struggle is like a circle: you can start anywhere, but it never ends.” This is the progressive spirit of greatness that runs through the veins of all humanity. We do not need any leaders to actualize this greatness within ourselves. All we need to do, as Husserl put it, is to embrace “the sort of courage that does not fear even an infinite struggle.” From Europe to the world, the time has come to break the chains of weariness and rise to the challenge of our times. The future of humanity now depends on it.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Damien November 8, 2011 at 17:13

Great piece, Jerome, as usual you steal the words from my mouth. In a good way :)

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Lugue November 8, 2011 at 17:46

Nuestra locura es la lucidez

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moxy November 10, 2011 at 15:22

” From Europe to the world, the time has come to break the chains of weariness and rise to the challenge of our times. ”
The author is vague on how that is to be done— but the spectre of even more politicians siphoning our wealth to their schemes comes to mind.
“Merkel and Sarkozy are not only poor democrats – they are terribly incompetent capitalists, too. ” — maybe there is a reason politics & economics do not mix– that people shudder when the term “Laissez nous faire” is mentioned shows, too, freedom is a terrible thing— best to leave the controlling alone.
Governments “cracking down one welfare… ” ??
Governments caused the problem; nothing like a politicians to suggest the answer is ore laws to fix things laws caused in the first place.
The author is right: we don’t need leaders– politicians do nothing except thru forcing us to their will– “Democratic Socialism” is the farce, like Communism before it, that might makes right.
It doesn’t.
The author quotes: ” As scientists scrambled to apply the objective laws of nature onto the realm of social relations, the mental lifeworld of the individual was brutally uprooted.”
Does he reject the Marxist notion that we are but automata of the hive, and that the Hive has failed? That it has is obvious— shall we then embrace the individual is sacrosanct, and move towards the light?
Or return to the Progressive ideal of Tribe, and start killing ourselves yet again?

The article is too vague & wishy washy to suggest anything other than fascism has failed, and let’s try again with more controls of a citizen’s liberty — here in Amerika the Bush/Obama axis has clearly meant more of us are in poverty, yet when the government confiscates & idly squanders our personal wealth,what do you expect?
Orwell’s Piggies are alive & well, and only a sharp axe may save us from these parasites.

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Akolatronito January 29, 2012 at 08:29

[...] in lenairng more? Dr. Kurt Huebner will be speaking at a roundtable, “Will the Euro Survive? The Crisis of the Eurozone and What it Means for the World Economy and Democr…”, also featuring Dr. Yves Tiberghien, Marko Papic, Dr. Angela Redish, and Dr. Alan [...]

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Axel Salomonsson December 2, 2011 at 00:46

Truly epic stuff Jerome, you are my new favourite writer. Keep it up! @ Moxy, I would like to comment, but I don’t speak stupid. Sorry.

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Jérôme E. Roos December 2, 2011 at 21:01

Haha, thanks Alex!

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jon orrell May 16, 2012 at 16:59

Interesting topic and exploration of a neglected yet vital area.

Some thinking that digs deeper than the bland corporate views of the mass media is much appreciated. I note our common Greek culture and also the influence of thinkers of Jewish extraction in recent centuries on social and philosophical issues. We do inhabit a materialist world with reductionist thinking and a low view of human nature as individual self interested neoliberal clones. Reality for most is a richer mix of nobler motives perhaps. A few at the top in capitalism and some at the bottom in prison may be genuine psychopaths http://www.monbiot.com/2011/11/07/the-self-attribution-fallacy/ Many in the middle are more social beings with neighbourly feelings and spiritual instincts.

The mass media and mainstream politicians portray only a binary world of austerity or collapse. There are other options from a Green neoKeynsiian revolution or debt cancellation. http://www.neweconomics.org/blog/2012/05/15/greek-austerity-the-end-of-the-line

The concept of debt cancellation or Jubilee is an ancient notion which apparently arose in ancient Mesopotamia where the first great monetary civilisation was also repeatedly convulsed by debt crises and found a solution that looked after the many. The first written records are about debts according to Graeber http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Graeber in “Debt – the first 5000 years. The debt cancellation and prohibitions on usury later becoming incorporated into the great religions of Judaism, then Christianity and Islam.
http://sojo.net/blogs/2011/07/06/what-does-it-mean-forgive-us-our-debts-we-forgive-our-debtors . Calvin etc seem to have abandoned the traditional catholic bans on usury with disasterous consequences for people and planet thus kicking off modern capitalism, but in fact repeating old Mesopotamian monetary errors. So a return to ancient spirituality would mean:
Freedom from Usury and therefore modern banking
Freedom from land grabbing/debt enslavement through Jubilee
Freedom from materialism through not coveting one’s neighbours ass etc
Freedom from war through following sermon on mount.
Good news to the poor as preached by Isiaih

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