I have written elsewhere on the plight of Western civilisation, with reference primarily to Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1926), in German Der Untergang des Abendlandes, where Untergang (“undergoing”) conveys a sense of a ship sinking slowly but inevitably beneath the waves. However, I propose to consider here Spengler’s lesser known work Man and Technics, which I suggest is of great relevance to the modern world, dominated as it is by technical innovation. (Both of these works are available as free e-books on the net.) I shall argue that the primitive nature of technological progress, registered powerfully but unconsciously, has been acting as a blithe spirit, causing trouble everywhere while remaining itself unseen.
This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
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My intention is to establish a root cause for ten—a selection from a greater number—phenomena of the modern world, over which much ink has been spilt, but of which no fundamental cause has been advanced. The discussions of some of the phenomena to follow may seem rather short, and brevity can give the impression of dogmatism; but breadth is the appropriate goal at this point—the greater depth can come after.
Spengler’s thesis in Man and Technics is that technics, as the “tactics of all life”—and so not to be understood merely in terms of tools, but rather the approaches to using them—began with the first animals, whose freedom and measure of free will and independence, in contrast to the plants, gave them significance, identity and superiority. The herbivore animals are natural prey; but the beasts of prey, of which Man is one, live by killing. One doubts that progressives would endorse Spengler’s high estimation of the latter (Spengler’s emphasis):
The animal of prey is the highest form of mobile life. It implies a maximum of freedom from others and for oneself, of self-responsibility, of independence, and an extreme of necessity where that self can hold its own only by fighting and winning and destroying. It imparts a high dignity to Man, as a type, that he is a beast of prey.
If this might seem excessive, consider the popularity and status of football in its various codes, where cave tribes fight over a small animal in the Olduvai gorge. All competitive sport is arguably of this nature. The herbivore is ruled by the ear and scent; but the higher carnivore rules by the eye. This makes all the difference, as the carnivore’s configuration of the eyes—so unlike that of the herbivore—enables the conception of a target. The pejorative phrase “male gaze” comes to mind; but for Spengler binocular vision signifies the “birth of the world … a world not merely of lights and colours, but of perspective distance, of space and motions in space, and of objects situated at definite points”.
A specifically human technics developed concurrently with the human hand. The machine achieved almost the status of a divine object in the eighteenth century, where “Technics is eternal and immortal like God the Father, it delivers mankind like God the Son, and it illumines us like God the Holy Ghost.” Spengler’s words ring strikingly true in the modern era, that “the soul of this beast of prey [the technical innovator] is ever hungry, his will never satisfied”. The onward rush towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution and beyond would appear to be unstoppable.
The point is that human technics has a powerful primitive dimension. The strong men and women among the technical innovators “have not lost the old feeling of triumph of the beast of prey as it holds the quivering victim in its claws”. At the same time however, “Faustian [Western] thought begins to be sick of machines.”
First, some definitions:
Fellaheen: This is Spengler’s term for the rootless inhabitants of the world city, where intellect rules at the expense of wisdom, and a sense of connection with the land and the cosmos has been lost. There has been much talk recently of “somewhere men” and “anywhere men”. I prefer the term “nowhere men” for the latter—these are the fellaheen, conceiving of themselves as citizens of the world, but in fact belonging nowhere.
Dasein and Wachsein: Spengler distinguishes between Dasein, “being there”, and Wachsein, “waking consciousness”. Dasein is a condition of cosmicity, and is inherent in the concepts of roots, nation, belonging; while in Wachsein “nothing disturbs the lordship of the eye … the only space that remains to us is visual space”. As examples of Dasein think, in music, of Chopin, Albeniz and Rachmaninoff, who incarnated the souls of Poland, Spain and Russia, respectively; in visual art, the outback of Drysdale, the countryside of Gainsborough, the Giverny of Monet; in literature, the Combray of Proust, the Wessex of Hardy, the Dublin of Joyce. My mother used to say, “You can take the girl out of the country, but not the country out of the girl.” This is truly what it means to have Dasein. All that is cosmic demonstrates periodicity or beat, as demonstrated for example in the diurnal cycle, the seasons, the heartbeat. Artists have used terms such as the “heart of the matter” (Graham Greene), the “hidden heart” (Christopher Brennan), and the “heart of the ocean” (James Cameron in his film Titanic), to convey a sense of this immanent cosmic dimension, the beating heart of the world.
Let us now examine some contemporary phenomena in the light of the ascendancy of technics.
1/ Inclusion and diversity. These are noble pursuits in themselves, but their extreme forms can be problematic. The American campus—and I suggest it is no coincidence that the US is the world leader in technics—is currently tearing itself apart over issues of inclusion. The primitive nature of technics gives it a tribal feeling, wherein the dominant tribe is perceived to be that of the Western male, with all that implies of inter-tribal hostility and exclusiveness. In terms of the Australian economy, this bias could have devastating consequences as boards are blackmailed by union-controlled super funds to implement gender quotas. The problem with affirmative action is that, as countless scholars have argued, it is not top-down, but rather bottom-up, that works in the real world.
2/ Indigenous. The increased advocacy for indigenous peoples in Western democracies has been another phenomenon of recent decades. There can be little doubt that it is the rootedness, belonging and blood ties—the Dasein, in a word—of indigenous peoples to the land that attract the fellaheen for whom these are but memories in the realities of their own lives, laid waste as they are by the kill-or-be-killed imperatives of the world city. A key principle of systems thinking is that the law of unintended consequences will apply to decisions that may be made on the basis of unconscious biases. Be careful of the consequences of the decisions you make—for example, as regards an indigenous voice in parliament.
3/ Hate speech. Spengler sees hate for the adversary as inherent in the beast of prey. This hate, however, is based on respect; if there is no respect, there is merely contempt. So-called “hate speech” in public discourse is routinely the target of progressives, yet their obloquy is arguably merely another expression of the mind “sick of machines”. The Pragmatist philosopher F.C.S. Schiller wrote: “We can often observe how love and hate inspire men with an insight to which the fish-like eye of cold indifference could never penetrate.” The word insight resonates with Spengler’s emphasis on the binocular vision of the beast of prey. The so-called “shock jocks” of the Western media are great haters, but that is arguably where their value lies. Their hate is based on respect—for public offices, public policy decisions, politicians or parties that have got it wrong. The tendency—often remarked upon—in contemporary discourse to refuse to debate with one’s opponent, but rather to anathematise their argument without further discussion, is arguably an expression—potentiated by the mobile phone which has put technics, and the problems of technics, in everyone’s hand—of the disrespectful contempt of the beast of prey. For every phone in front, there is a blithe spirit behind, bent on mischief. The term “pack behaviour” is often used to describe social media pile-ons. It is as if the spirit of the beast of prey atavistically takes possession of the ignoramus with the power of modern technology in his or her hand.
4/ Veganism. A behaviour of the individual soul-sick of the beast-of-prey world of technics, and which longs for the depth dimension of Dasein. Spengler describes a worldview that may contribute to causing this reaction: “‘Shuddering awe is mankind’s noblest part.’ He to whom that gift has been denied by fate must seek to discover secrets, to attack, dissect, and destroy the awe-inspiring …” Veganism can be understood as a protest against the tendency of the fellaheen of the technics-enabled world city to destroy rootedness, belonging and spiritual elevation. The extremes to which veganism can lead (farm invasions and so on) indicate the depth of unconsciousness of what lies at its base.
5/ Wokeness. For Spengler, sleep is pure Dasein. Woke would seem to have an etymological kinship with wake, awaken and so on; and I interpret the concept of wokeness as an assault on the cosmic dimension of Man. This is consistent with the world-feeling of the fellaheen. Wokeness is pure waking-consciousness in denial of Dasein. The universal challenge is rather to thread the Scylla and Charybdis of Dasein and Wachsein—in Fichtean terms, to reconcile their thesis and antithesis to achieve a synthesis—and the most powerful and fulfilling way to achieve this is through art. Abusers of sex and drugs come to grief on the one threat, the fellaheen on the other. The two disasters may befall the same person.
6/ Masculinity. Man as a beast of prey arguably is associated, in that region of the brain where biases and quick-fire associations unmodified by reason live, with the male gender—with the hunter rather than the gatherer. A primitive masculinity is felt, strongly though largely unconsciously, to rule a world dominated by technics. The force of the misconceived Gillette advertisement derived from its depiction of the tribal nature of men.
There is suggestive evidence that males in general may have a higher risk appetite than females. Nature creates and destroys, and biologically it has been the role of the male to deal with nature in the latter mode. Spengler argues that the modern world city represents the triumph over nature. I suggest that the fellaheen of the world city, where technics has enabled an unprecedented control over nature, may find the risk-related role of the male to be an intrusion into their idyll, an unwelcome reminder that nature is not so easily subdued, for all the technology at our disposal. It may be that recent images of the traditionally masculine Tony Abbott in his voluntary firefighter role, in the context of the devastating fires in New South Wales, might help to mitigate the progressives’ contempt for him, and for traditional masculinity in general, but these attitudes tend to be deeply ingrained.
Spengler’s argument is that a culture will fulfil itself. This was seen, for example, in the explosion of Islam after its centuries of oppression by Rome. Traditional masculinity and femininity are necessary for this fulfilment, which cannot be achieved in one generation only. It is interesting to be living in a time when these traditions are perceived to be no longer necessary as, so Spengler would argue, the growing point of the West blunts and petrifies in the world city. Hence the ascendancy of gay marriage, and the growing influence of LGBTQI, which not all the polemics of all the well-meaning commentators in the world might reverse or hold back. They are manifestations, and not causes, of the moribund condition of the West.
7/ Racism (as a term of invective). To deny that there are racial differences is, I suggest, to deny experience. There certainly are differences, and they derive from a connection with the soil of a country. This is what it means to have Dasein. The systems thinking pioneer Werner Ulrich has characterised an “-ism” as a correct idea which has been taken to extremes. Modern feminism arguably fits this category. Notions of race, gender and age differences are basically sound, but can be taken to extremes. Progressives have decided to their own satisfaction that any expression whatsoever of these differences is extreme.
8/ Intellectuals v Deplorables. The fellaheen of the inner city arguably have lost any sense of what it might mean to have a connection with the land, the town, the family. The farmer, the suburban home owner and family person, the blue-collar worker, exhibit a fine contempt—hatred would be the wrong word, as that implies respect—for the fellaheen, and have expressed it in a powerful way in recent elections in the US, Australia and the UK. It may be that hatred is applicable in the other direction. The activities of GetUp in Australia, Momentum in the UK, and anti-Trump factions in the US, have displayed an organised viciousness unparalleled in the modern West.
9/ Transgenderism. This is yet another “-ism”, as a basically correct idea which has been taken to extremes. Transitioning for an adult of sound judgment may be a good thing. However, transgenderism—of the “transgender women have periods too” variety—is a stark exemplification of the rootless thought of the fellaheen. “I think I am a woman, therefore I am a woman” evinces a comprehensive lack of sense of Dasein. Transgenderism could inform public policy-making only in a culture dominated by the fellaheen of its world cities, and ipso facto on its last legs.
10/ Mansplaining. Dasein conveys a sense of destiny, whereas Wachsein concerns itself with cause and effect. “Explaining”, pejoratised as “mansplaining”, is an activity of the latter. The Mr Men children’s book series has been under attack from the usual suspects—souls sick of the tyranny of the world city, I suggest—for committing the sin of mansplaining. This is a dangerous tendency, for two reasons. First, cause-and-effect will always be a vital concern of humanity, and the refusal for any reason to hear an explanation of it must have harmful consequences. Second, the reshaping of art of the past in line with modern sensibilities runs the risk of excising Dasein from the work in question. The public broadcasters in Australia and the UK are particularly assiduous at this revolutionary task, recreating women who might convey the depth dimension of Dasein as shallow fellaheen fit for competing against men in the animal world of technics. The current revision of Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women is a notable example.
This study has been about cause and effect, the cause being technics, which so dominates the modern world, as it is perceived correctly yet largely unconsciously to be ruthless and primitive in nature. Yet the question of destiny could not be ignored. It is the destiny of the West to die, and there can be no moralising about this inexorable fact of life. Yet this does not have to be a disaster, and the world can be made a better place for those who come after if its principal actors are precisely and accurately aware of the changes that are taking place. Destroying the economies of nations, the minds and lives of children, and the power of art to heal and nurture, can be of no help at all.
This study has barely or not at all touched on religion, art, sexual behaviour, motherhood, education, campus shenanigans and other problem areas of the times. Other lenses could fruitfully be applied: for example, the polarities of love and power between which the great cultures alternate; the Jungian polarities of emotion and logic; or the binary (1, 0) basis of computing (Professor Neil Turok discusses the psychological implications of this dualism in his book The Universe Within). Much more could be done to build up a rich picture of the modern West in its final phase, which has an insatiable hunger for technological innovation at its core. The blithe spirit needs to be visualised and named.
Michael Buhagiar also writes for the Spectator Australia.