Oliver Bennett
Cultural Pessimism

Anticipating Adorno and Horkheimer, Weber argued that Enlightenment rationality had not only failed to deliver universal human freedom but had also actually promoted even more intractable forms of oppression. The rationality of the Enlightenment had turned out to be what Weber called 'purposive-instrumental rationality,' a mode of thinking that was colonising all aspects of social and institutional life. This was Weber's 'iron cage,' a kind of bureaucratisation of the human spirit, from which there would be no escape. 'Not summer's bloom lies ahead of us,' he wrote, 'but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardship.' Friedrich Nietzsche had attacked all forms of rationality, with his ferocious repudiation of everything that the Enlightenment had stood for. Doctrines of progress were to him no more than a feeble charade, powerless against the wild and anarchistic forces that lay beneath the surface of modern life. In his 'tragic vision,' he looked forward to the complete destruction of an effete and corrupt civilisation which had reduced human existence to a form of slow suicide. In promoting this vision, Nietzsche produced not so much a philosophy but, as John Carey has pointed out, more a form of rhetoric that licensed a way of feeling. But it was a rhetoric which proved highly influential, inspiring both an important strand of modernist art and literature and a generation of Fascist leaders. The influence of Nietzsche can also be seen in Freud, whose notion of primary and secondary processes closely resembles Nietzsche's Dionysian and Apollinian. Nietzsche even invented the term 'id,' which Freud was later to popularise.

Moving further back into the nineteenth century, we encounter Arthur Schopenhauer. Although Nietzsche and Freud were both clearly indebted to him, Schopenhauer stood alone in having constructed an entire philosophy of pessimism. This philosophy was not obviously related to a specific culture but connected to what Schopenhauer saw as fundamental and universal attributes of the human condition. His idea of decline, therefore, was conceived not in terms of civilisations, societies or historical periods but in terms of the inevitable journey towards suffering that each and every human being faced. In Parerga and Parilopomena (1851), he invited us to consider the difference between our beginnings and our end:
We begin in the madness of carnal desire and the transport of voluptuousness, we end in the dissolution of all our parts and the musty stench of corpses. And the road from the one to the other too goes, in regard to our well-being and enjoyment of life, steadily downhill: happily dreaming childhood, exultant youth, toil-filled years of manhood, infirm and often wretched old age, the torment of the last illness and finally the throes of death—does it not look as if existence were an error the consequences of which gradually grow more and more manifest?
In the same volume, Schopenhauer repeatedly referred to life as a form of punishment, describing the world as 'a place of atonement, a sort of penal colony.' Children could seem like 'innocent delinquents, sentenced not to death but to life, who have not yet discovered what their punishment will consist of. It was possible, of course, to experience momentary pleasure, but, in Schopenhauer's vision, life was overwhelmingly skewed towards the experience of pain. Indeed, if one tried to imagine 'the sum total of distress, pain and suffering of every kind' experienced by human beings, then it was impossible not to conclude that it would have been better had the earth remained as devoid of life as the moon. But for Schopenhauer, deeply influenced by Buddhism, there was no escape from life, not even in death: only the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, until, perhaps, one could at last achieve a state of death-in-life through the final annihilation of the will.

At a less metaphysical level, the entire capitalist world, with its system of 'naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation,' was represented by Karl Marx as a culture in terminal decline; although, of course, in Marx's scheme, humanity would eventually be redeemed by the utopia which would arise from the ashes of capitalism's final collapse. William Morris, who through a different route came to share much of Marx's vision a couple of decades later, likened 'competitive commerce' to a system of war which brought waste and destruction. 'Our civilization is passing like a blight,' he wrote in 1884, 'daily growing heavier and more poisonous, over the whole face of the country.' Although Marx had a more ambivalent relationship to the phenomenon of industry' per se, recognising the emancipatory possibilities of its enormous productive power, for both Marx and Morris, the development of 'industrialism' as a capitalist enterprise produced for the majority of people an impoverished form of existence. This was due not only to economic exploitation but also to the nature of industrial work itself. The new manufacturing processes relied on a greater and greater division of labour, which demanded the endless repetition of mind-numbing tasks. As Marx put it in Capital, this served to 'mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil.'

Whilst these accounts of industrialism went further in their political and economic analysis than anything that had gone before, the idea that it represented a form of cultural decline was not in itself new. The term 'industrialism' was, in fact, coined by Thomas Carlyle, who, in 'Signs of the times' (1829), suggested that if one epithet were to be chosen to characterise the age in which he lived it would be the 'Mechanical Age.' Carlyle recognised the extraordinary results that 'Mechanism' had achieved in the external world. 'We remove mountains,' he wrote, 'and make seas our smooth highways; nothing can resist us.' But for Carlyle a healthy culture depended upon advances not only in the external world but also in the inner world; and while we had excelled in the former, the latter had been seriously neglected. Indeed, so predominant had the 'mechanical' mode of thinking become that even the idea of an 'inner world,' which could not be understood or investigated 'mechanically,' was becoming increasingly difficult to grasp. 'Mechanism' had also taken over political discourse, which was concerned not with ends but almost exclusively with means. The issue of 'freedom,' for example, was reduced to 'arrangements, institutions and constitutions'; the question of what freedom was for was barely even asked. 'Mechanism' had produced enormous power and wealth; but for Carlyle, 'in whatever respects the pure moral nature, in true dignity of soul and character, we are perhaps inferior to most civilised ages.'

In arriving at this position, Carlyle was drawing on both English Romanticism and the theories of culture developed in Weimar during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The Romantic revolt in England was, in part, a response to the development of an industrialism built, as William Blake had put it, upon the 'single vision' of science. The 'dark satanic mills' were only the most obvious symbol of a culture that was seen to promote a limited and mechanistic conception of human potentiality. For Percy Bysshe Shelley, it was striking that there had been extraordinary advances in scientific, political and economic knowledge, yet this had resulted not in a more equitable world, but had only added to the general weight of human misery.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.