Humanity’s spiritual crisis and endless struggle

  • November 7, 2011

Society & Solidarity

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.

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Jerome Roos

Jerome Roos is the founder and editor of ROAR Magazine, and a postdoctoral researcher in political economy at the University of Cambridge. For more on his research and writings, visit jeromeroos.com.

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