Europe in Decline
photo: Niccolò Caranti, flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0 licence

Europe in Decline

BY Andrzej Leder

We’re mourning and hating ourselves behind a screen of feverish everyday activity

5 minutes reading left

“The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself, and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.”

Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will

We are living in an age of decline. The unbelievable progress in areas of technology, communications, management or warfare is accompanied by feelings of burnout, tiredness and decline. Unlike the 19th century, full of enthusiasm for the wave of technological progress, we consider these astounding changes a tithe that civilization owes the unhappy man of today. Our world is the future realized before our eyes and not the dream of the future we once enjoyed. Change has become routine, instead of hope it evokes within us an ever-increasing number of demands. We’re stuck, muttering: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” to ourselves over and over again.

Walter Benjamin, an expert in failure and all things in decline, claims that there is no such thing as decadent eras. Benjamin himself was a walking collection of failures, botched efforts and wasted chances. He must have been deeply motivated to continue with his constant analyses of these periods of human history commonly recognized as backwards, dark and wasted. He wanted to cradle them in his hands and with a careful eye backed by a brilliant mind, save them from falling into oblivion. That’s why, contrary to Bauman’s views, the gaze of the Angel of History regarding the ruins of the past – to use a metaphor coined by Benjamin – is not full of repulsion, as much as compassion and understanding for “decaying and foul remnants of previous escapes,” escapes from bad epochs. Thanks to that compassion, Benjamin teaches us about all the ways in which we can experience failure, and in which humanity chooses to manifest itself. He teaches us something else, but more on that in a little while.

These many ways of experiencing failure derive mostly out of the multitude of ways in which we can describe decadent situations. We fall in different ways; and it’s best not to leave the way we fall up to chance. Maybe these decadent eras force us to become responsible, responsible “against”, instead of “in step” with the spirit of the times.

The rules of hardship

The era we live in is not liquid. Rather it’s in the process of stiffening into something one-dimensional, easily taking away various aspects of our perception of the world. The condition of the most important part of today’s humanity – the globalized bourgeoisie [1] – is decided by the imperative of work, hardship and self-discipline, forced upon society with such ruthlessness that it clouds the importance of all other things. The rules of hardship dictate effectiveness, while effectiveness dictates success. Bauman says that nowadays we no longer need supervisors, as the possibility of personal failure (which transforms into the failure of everyone I feel responsible for), and fear thereof, is enough to force us to concentrate on only one goal in life – personal success. And that is exactly why modernity is not liquid.

European Culture Congress – Wrocław
[8-11 September 2011]

ECC is a meeting of leading personas of the European culture – theoreticians and practitioners, intellectuals and artists. Its starting point is a book, written especially for the occasion of the Congress, by prof. Zygmunt Bauman and prof. Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska on the contemporary European culture condition and possible scenarios for its development. ECC will be one of the central events of the National Cultural Programme of Polish Presidency in the EU Council.

Everything comes down to hardship, which is only an escape from feelings of defeat disguised as striving for success. And hardship compels us to hunker down and concentrate, endlessly mobilized for action.

Moreover, it boils our experience of the world down to a constant fear of failure and short-lived moments of triumph. Of course it only pertains to people that are still “in the game.” Those who, having dropped out, wallow in depression and emptiness. The upside of modernity is that it ensures that most of the bourgeoisie stays “in the game.” If it weren't able to provide that access, it would disappear.

Liquidity is subject to this dominating dimension of hardship, forced by our desire for success and a debilitating fear of its lack. From this flows – hidden under a superficial, and yet real, variability of things and phenomena – the rigidness and uniformity of basic experience, basic human condition. The diversity of “a hundred flowers” blooming in front of us – the existence of a wide spectrum of choices, be it cultural, sexual or pertaining to identity – gives us an illusion of “liquidity” because it’s not a part of the essence of what’s important – the hardship, the discipline, success or failure. Of course, our choices and identity determinants – like gender, sexual orientation, skin color or creed – can be beneficial or detrimental to our pursuit of success. but they are not a goal in and of themselves. People who attach too much meaning to these choices are generally laughed at. Meanwhile, those invested in the identity cause, against the dominant “right to identity” discourse, are branded the “jesters” of modernity. Sometimes sinister, but jesters nonetheless. The diversity of consumer products – and nowadays practically everything falls in that category, from novels, through theories and shoes, up to yachts – is not experienced as something self-contained but rather as a status symbol in the only dimension that matters, the dimension of hardship, success and failure.

Aren’t we buying things exactly because they are status symbols? We even think better of ourselves after acquiring a shiny new product, we deem the new us better than the poor us from before the buy. It’s a well-known phenomenon.

Using the language of Lacanian theory, the liquidity pertains to the imaginary, the processes generating and infusing the imaginary with sense – what we call the symbolic – are increasingly simpler, reduced to only one powerful mechanism that rules the lives of most people. This reduction is limiting and tiresome, while simultaneously creating another aspect that makes modern life incredibly demanding: we have to skillfully play with the superficial excess – all these toys that the market wants us to buy – lest we forget the one important dimension – the dimension of success, prestige, hardship and self-discipline. Just as the creators from the Maoist era of “a hundred flowers” showed lack of insight (they did not notice that in Mao’s project, the only thing that mattered was political loyalty towards the leader of the party) so the modern representative of the middle class can’t let himself be fooled by consumer products in an of themselves and forget that they are only an external symbol of his dedication to the rules of hardship.

Advantages of effectiveness

The civilization in which we live forces us to endure unbelievable hardships and self-discipline. And yet, in the works of civilization’s most insightful thinkers, these two are almost completely deprived of any value. The righteousness of hardship is decimated, and the sense in enduring it, however illusory, has been questioned. This devaluing is a result of the crimes against humanity perpetrated in the 20th century. The rational, goal-oriented mind, for which hardship is a direct link between the present and the future, found itself accused of facilitating these atrocities. Its moral righteousness was ground to dust when the screams of the dying ripped the future from the present. You can’t dream about the future when your ears are full of screams. It is in this exact moment that Benjamin’s metaphor actualizes itself. The Angel of History turns its back on the happy generations of the future. He looks upon the violated. It cannot help them – the time, also known as progress, pushes it away from the victims like wind. It cannot infuse death with any sort of sense.

European Culture Congress – Wrocław
[8-11 September 2011]

Discussion panels covering phenomena and problems of contemporary European culture will be accompanied by artistic projects entitled “Art for Social Change”. The artists and culture animators taking part in the event come not only from European Union countries, but also from the Eastern Partnership group: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Russia.

The impossibility of ascribing any logical explanations to the tragedies of the 20th century was fundamental for setting the mood of the Western world, which in turn has enabled the “exposure of reason,” changing expectations into disappointments and the popularization of the discourse of harm.

Simultaneously, the rules of hardship have given our civilization an enormous advantage over all the other cultures – the advantage of effectiveness. The entire world has been directly experiencing this advantage of Europeans, and their clones, the Americans, for the last three hundred years. Today, in economic crisis-stricken Europe, the experience has shifted towards the countries of Southern Europe and their people, who are right now suffering the effectiveness of the Northerners. The fact that on a global scale the effectiveness center of gravity is moving towards East Asia does not change the mechanism itself. Cultures where the rules of hardship have been codified and made an element of the cultural transmission are more easily accepted by the rational, goal-oriented logic of the Western world. Not being burdened by guilt makes that acceptance even easier.

As a consequence of these processes, we’re living in a weird world. On one hand, every day the world demands from us tremendous work efforts, acceptance of the rules of hardship (which become the expected norm), and on the other, it tries to convince us that this hardship is either senseless or morally questionable.

According to a whole band of critics of modernity, hardship lacks sense mostly in the communal dimension, because eventually it only reinforces the hidden structure of the concentration camp which shapes modern societies.

This point is forcefully driven home by Giorgio Agamben [2] , easily dispatching the classics of the Frankfurt School. Hardship in a camp is a zero-sum game; it serves nothing, particularly not the imprisoned, it is rather a form of dehumanizing the prisoners.

That is the source of catchphrases about “the system” that enslaves us all. These catchphrases express a feeling that our world is ruled by some inertia and needs no serious engaging. They are the testament to the loss of sense of purpose, to a lack of faith in that our hardship, alienated and detached from any direct result, serves any long-term goals or good, lawful order.

Cynics and narcissists

These phrases serve one more purpose – they sanction complaints about the senselessness of hardships. The difference between the loss of a sense or purpose and the sanctioning of the loss of purposelessness is very important. The former forces us to seek these feelings out, allows for rebellion and Promethean gestures, while discursive sanctioning of purposelessness justifies feelings of resignation, allows for assuming the position of an object, that “doesn’t want to but has to” and is rewarded by abandoning responsibility. I can work inside the system, but internally, I’m distancing myself from it. Only a naive fool would feel responsible for it. These notions, in turn, allow for preaching of egoist ethics, the primacy of what’s mine over all that which is not. The border between these two spheres is not set in stone. For some, included in the “mine” sphere are children and lovers, others include in it only that which lies inside their own bodies. Contrary to appearances, the line is purely functional, there is no substance to it. It is linked with the feeling of directness. As “mine” I consider that which I experience directly. That which is indirect may be treated as “alien” and a part of the “system.” Alienated institution, alienated job, alienated relationships.

European Culture Congress – Wrocław
[8-11 September 2011]

The programme of ECC combines theory with cultural practise. Such form makes it closer to a social-cultural festival, rather than an academic debate. The programme includes, among others, design, video and modern art presentations, which aim at showing culture as an instrument of social change and a foundation for creative society. It will also present music, theatre and film projects, art formats such as Emergency Room, Pecha Kutcha and an integration game for non-governmental organisations.

The discursive justification of purposelessness ultimately serves this particular forms of cynicism that feeds off disillusion, which has been brilliantly diagnosed in modern societies by critics such as Peter Sloterdijk or Slavoj Žižek. In this case, cynicism feeds on exposing the illusory character of everything that is indirect and outside of the “mine” sphere. This is how we describe the purposelessness sanctioning attitude, the lack of common goals and narcissism, with which is ultimately closely linked with it.

Cold analyses, exposing the hypocrisy of institutions, insights into the nature of ideological veils that hide brutal interests – all these strategies allow for justification of distancing oneself, shunning responsibility and embracing contempt.

Finally, they also justify the perverse statement that in a world, where a brutal game of interests is the only possibility, the only authentic attitude consists of explication and defense of our own interests and ruthless fighting against those of others.

I have a feeling that Zbigniew Bauman, one of the greatest critics of the modern rational and goal-oriented mind with its universal aspirations, senses the danger in removing the teleological (and placed somewhere in the future) purpose horizon from the rules of hardship. He calls for the development of a new universalism, noting however, that “one of possible reactions to the uncertainy [of modern life] is the ideology of ‘the end of ideologies’ and an attitude of detachment; another, equally possible but more promising reaction would be convincing oneself that the search for common humanity [...] was never more necessary than it is now.”

The search for common humanity – whatever it may mean – really is a promising perspective. We have to agree with that, all criticism of universalism aside. But is that reaction equally probable as cynicism and withdrawal? I doubt it.

This new adventure would require us to work through the mourning that has been eating away at us after the dreams of the 19th century have morphed into the tragedy of the 20th. As the pessimist Freud teaches us, going through mourning is always the toughest it’s slow and takes lots of time.

Choosing childlessness

The dark stigma of decadence is strangely intertwined with the power of our civilization. These two sides of the same coin are linked by the rules of hardship – they result in effectiveness at the same time reducing the human condition to only one dimension. The world of hardship, lacking any far-reaching common meaning, loses also one of its most important characteristics – the ability to replicate itself over time, to see itself in subsequent generations. The reason for this is very simple. The devastated world of hardship is not really friendly towards toddlers.

People for whom hard work and achieving success in life is an “obvious obviousness” do not want to have children.

Paradoxically, this doesn’t concern only people whose “mine” sphere is limited to their bodies. In their case it’s simple, a child is the most needy Other, therefore having and rearing children is absolutely against the cult of self. However, those that include their closest ones in their “mine” sphere tend to hesitate when it comes to decisions concerning procreation. Because each child reduces the means available to every member of the family partaking in the horrid rat race. There is also the fear of failure, a “shadow” that accompanies those striving for success is transferred onto those for whom we are responsible; those who fear falling into the abyss also fear pulling those clinging to his hands and legs with them.

Making the effort required by modern life is possible only after one gets through a hard, long-term conditioning program called “socialization.”

Contrary to expectations, this training commences at a very young age, usually before infants end up in the hands of institutions. The parents are socialized according to the rules of hardship, which in turn trains them in putting up with frustration, delaying emotional gratification and replacing them with consumption, forcing discipline on themselves and clinging to one goal. Thus trained, they confer these characteristics upon their children from their earliest years. And these tendencies are later exacerbated in kindergarten, at school, all the education institutions. Without this background, people just can’t handle the strain that modern life puts on them, just as during World War I, when the Senegalese troops serving in the French army, although excellent in close combat, couldn’t endure prolonged artillery barrages with its monotonous noise and endless destruction.

Immigration does not solve the problem of Western culture “shrinking.” Even if the immigrants assimilate the rules of hardship, the culture they’ll create will be a mixture of their familiar “socialization strategies” that they brought with them as a society and those that they found in the West. Thus a new culture will form, maybe better, maybe worse, but it will be – to use Touraine’s term – multicommunitarian. Surely it’s going to be different from the Western culture we know.

The exception that proves the rule

Let’s examine two societies in this context; both are dominated by the rules of hardship, and yet the people want to have kids. I’m talking about the French and Americans, the latter mostly in the conservative Midwest. Following the reasoning of Frank Thomas, in the Midwest we might be dealing with a modern culture that has not burdened itself with responsibility for the horrors of the 20th century, thus sparing itself from the individualistic shunning of any far-reaching and communal project, moreover, it clings to the Puritan project described by Max Weber.

The case of France is more complex. Having kids is popular in France. Two important factors are at play here – one is the high level of social security provided by one of the most effective states in Europe, while the other is a deep-seated unwillingness of the nation to regard professional success as a measure of a well-lived life. Maybe it’s linked with a feeling that is typical for the French, that “they had everything when others were only dreaming about it.”

The “flattening” of the dimension created by rules of hardship: less fear of failure and less hunger for success, allows the French to create a dimension of free time and family satisfaction on a scale unknown in other European countries.

This example does not change the overall tendency, which is that the countries where rules of hardship dominate are slowly depopulated and that forces governments to import people, who create their own communities and change the way entire societies function, a phenomenon Bauman so aptly described. Multiculturalism, along with multicommunitarianism (which is a modern version of a caste system) hiding behind it, is just one of the dangers inherent in this situation.

The most dangerous is that which is linked with this vicious circle hidden inside the logic of rules of hardship lacking any teleological sense. The more pervasive they are in society, the more power it has, thus leading to its domination and blossoming of the material sphere and anything that it is possible to make and organize. Simultaneously they limit the horizon of desires and goals, taking away society’s ability to project itself into the future by ensuring the happiness of future generations. They produce a gap, a breach in the future that is being populated by people from other cultures, less susceptible to the rules of hardship. Paradoxically, their power, residing in the future, is directly linked with less control over their present. They are not as effective as people that came before them. Thus culture has to take a few steps backwards.

The future is ours

We live in a future that has already happened. According to Bergson’s words, quoted at the beginning, that results in  loss of the hope and potential that animates a culture. Loss of hope means we can shun responsibility for the future, which in turn, means expansion in the present, concentrating on what is directly perceptible, and tangible – hardship and objects. In such a setting, thought shrinks inward, unable to spread its wings.

But the future still exists. The problem is not its lack but that we no longer dream about it. We gaze upon the ruins of the past beside Benjamin’s Angel of History. We’re mourning and hating ourselves behind a screen of feverish everyday activity. That’s the source of grief.

We no longer feel that the future is ours. It could’ve been ours if we took care to think about the generations that will come after us. If, after overcoming our mourning, we believed that we still have a heritage – even though there will bad experiences of our culture mixed in with the good – that we can pass on to them.

But that means taking responsibility for the future of humanity, the future of today’s children, literally and figuratively. We would have to ensure that the changes in the global arena are no longer accompanied by atrocities, like they were so many times before, take for example the fall of ancient culture. If we cannot avert them, then we must make sure to lessen their scale. This is an absolute minimum that we owe to those that will inherit the world we left behind.

translated by Jan Szelągiewicz

  1. 1. I’m talking about the middle class, dominant in societal hierarchies of the West and on the rise in every other region of the world, more or less connected with and dependent on the global economy, forced to work under strict and terrifying discipline.
  2. 2. „The camp, not the state, is the modern biopolitical paradigm in the West.” [This] “thesis casts a shadow on the models with which the humanities, sociology, city planning, architecture are trying to organize the public space of the cities, unaware that in their hearts (...) there is a naked life, that defined the biopolitics of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.” Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, translated by Mateusz Salwa, Warsaw, 2008, p. 247

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