Maurice Berger, the French child psychologist, psychoanalyst, and professor at the National School of Magistrates, has spent some four decades working with violent and delinquent children and adolescents in institutions like the Centre éducatif fermé. Since the early 1990s he has warned of a steady increase in gratuitous violence, only to find, as he put in a recent with Le Figaro, that “the attitude of successive governments has been implicitly to think ‘after me, the flood,’ only the flood is now here.” It is simply astonishing to hear that in France a criminal complaint is now filed for an act of gratuitous violence roughly every two minutes, indicating an outbreak of civil disorder of positively gargantuan proportions. (An by Guy Millière of the University of Paris, “The Reverse-Colonization of France,” gives some sense of the almost ubiquitous barbarism currently wracking that nation.) The origins of this mounting socio-pathological crescendo are complex. Endemic domestic violence engenders the worst sort of learned behavior, while group codes of morality have become quite at odds with, while taking absolute precedence over, external laws and traditional norms. And yet the taproots of the crisis may lie even deeper, in what Berger calls “damaged thought.”
“We are in an exhausted civilization. We only love what hates us, anything that destroys us is seen as great. There is a desire to destroy truth, history.”
When looking back on his patient interactions, Berger marveled at the near total lack of empathy on display. “None of the young people I met showed a real feeling of guilt for their violence.” One offender flatly stated that “we were bored, so we set fire to a warehouse,” while another inmate responded to a question about how his victim’s mother must have felt with a callous shrug: “She would have been sad for a moment, then you have to move on and not feel sorry for your whole life, it’s silly [ballot]. He would have died one day anyway.” It was at this point, the psychologist realized, that “destroying, like hitting, is the game of those who have no imagination,” no capacity for fellow feeling. Berger admitted to feeling “destabilized” by this new awareness, appearing as it does to close off most every therapeutic avenue. What is really needed, Berger concluded, is something far grander in scale than that which a lone psychiatrist can provide: a vigorous push to “re-legitimize a very firm principle of authority at all levels (school, respect for the police, etc.) in order to restructure our collective functioning and to prevent the loss of any idea of ‘common good.’ ” Excellent advice, but it would seem that there are vanishingly few in positions of authority, in France or elsewhere, who are inclined to take it.
When we see shooting and murder rates skyrocket, the Upper West Side descend into squalor, looters overrun Chicago’s Magnificent Mile (and, while they’re at it, a ), statues torn down, and civic pride on the wane, we begin to sense that the civilizational cogs are all slipping at the same time. Berger has perceived this phenomenon in his time at the Centre éducatif fermé. Another prison psychiatrist, Theodore Dalrymple, has perceived it as well, in Law & Liberty that “there is a cultural equivalent of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Once entropy has gone far enough, there is little left to save. To change the analogy slightly, the baby will have gone down the plughole well before the bathwater. That will soon follow, of course, and an empty bath is an uninviting place.” Societal negentropic forces are few and far between, however. As the French philosopher Michel Onfray recently , “France is in a coma and near death.… We are in an exhausted civilization. We only love what hates us, anything that destroys us is seen as great. There is a desire to destroy truth, history.” And France is hardly alone in his regard.
The poet who coined the very term modernité, Charles Baudelaire, instantly intuited the diabolical qualities inherent in that novel concept. In his 1868 essay L’Art Romantique, Baudelaire asserted that modernism has “an essentially demoniacal tendency. And it seems this satanic side of man … increased every day, as if the devil, like one who fattens geese, enjoyed enlarging it by artificial means, patiently force-feeding the human race in his poultry yard in order to prepare himself a more succulent feast.” But what precisely is driving this danse macabre? Ryszard Legutko would blame the totalitarian and ahistorical compulsions at the core of both communist and liberal societies. Roberto Calasso would attribute the triumph of our modern “age of the insubstantial” on the fact that “society itself has become the major superstition of our times,” thereby weakening the mysteries, the rituals, and the sacrifices that heretofore buttressed our spiritual, communal, and interior lives. Martin Heidegger would hold responsible — as he did in a fascinating 1966 Der Spiegel interview — the “planet-wide movement of modern technicity [die Technik],” which “increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth.” Whatever the cause, I am inclined to agree with Léon Krier, who in a with Nikos Salingaros stated in the most vehement terms that “Modernism’s declaration of war against tradition was not just a rejection of obsolete traditions but it included all knowledge and know-how which does not fit its reductive vision of humanity, history, technology, politics, and economy. It is a systematic rape of man’s psychological and physiological make-up.” Baudelaire himself could not have put it better.
Against those forces of totalitarianism, secularism, and technicity, there was always one force that seemed to hold out indefinitely: that of bourgeoisie. Admittedly it was the bourgeoisie that “gradually destroyed, by its free activity, the old aristocratic society founded on a hierarchy of birth,” as François Furet observed in The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. But the bourgeoisie in time evolved a host of self-defense mechanisms of its own, whether in the commercial, cultural, religious, or familial spheres. Walter Benjamin, in his monumental, unfinished study of 19th-century life, The Arcades Project, described how the “self-satisfied burgher” managed to cocoon himself in a plush domestic environment of “bourgeois coziness — a mood that in hashish intoxication concentrates to satanic contentment, satanic knowing, satanic calm,” the polar opposite, as it happens, of the satanic dizziness conjured up by Baudelaire. “To live in these interiors,” Benjamin continued, “was to have woven a dense fabric about oneself, to have secluded oneself within a spider’s web, in whose toils world events hang loosely suspended like so many insect bodies sucked dry. From this cavern, one does not like to stir.”
So they must be made to stir. Marx sought the destruction of “bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, &c.,” the “abolition of the family,” the extirpation of “bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education,” and so on, while Mao savagely repressed the “Four Olds” that were habits, ideas, customs, and culture. The “dense fabric” of the bourgeoisie would have to be disentangled and unraveled for the “negative utopianism” of the Left to penetrate the public consciousness. This is why the Vendéens had to be drowned en masse; why Kulaks had to be liquidated; why both fascists and communists focused their ire on those José Ortega y Gasset dubbed the señorito satisfecho; why the current protest movement du jour seeks the communalization of both the economy and child-rearing; and why, as Robert Stacy McCain in these pages, the suburbs must be punished for their “exclusionary zoning policies,” the better to pave the way for the “wholesale redevelopment of existing neighborhoods, and the eventual elimination of most single family houses.” No more contentment, no more calm.
The bourgeoisie even appears willing to bring this on itself. Guy Millière, in his Gatestone Institute article on gratuitous violence in France, cited the journalist Éric Zemmour’s observation that “the hatred of France and the French did come out and took the form of riots and terrorism. It now takes the form of assaults and murders: a generalized expression of hatred of France and the French. And in a gesture of submission, the French authorities say that hatred does not emanate from those who kill, but from those who want to react and say that we must put an end to assaults and murders. It is a suicidal attitude.” Again, this self-destructive instinct is hardly unique to the French nation, and no doubt stems from decades of ideological indoctrination, a manifest sense of guilt, and the constant, pulsating drumming of the social media/televisual/digital tattoo on our collective retinas. As Allan Bloom noted in The Closing of the American Mind, Nietzsche among others perceived how “the newspaper had replaced the prayer in the life of the modern bourgeois, meaning that the busy, the cheap, the ephemeral, had usurped all that remained of the eternal in his daily life.” How much worse is that predisposition in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok?
So technicity is ascendant, and prayer has been replaced by the news. Heidegger, in the aforementioned Der Spiegel interview in which he warned of the dangers of die Technik, maintained that “philosophy cannot directly provoke a change of the present situation of the world. And this is true not only for philosophy but also for all activity of human thought. Only a God can still save us [Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten]. The sole possibility we have, in thought and poetry, is to prepare our availability for the appearance of that God or for the absence of God in sunset times [Untergrund]; given that we, if God is absent, will disappear.” Again, excellent advice, but how many are taking it? I had preserved some hope that the danger of mediating practically all of human existence through digital interfaces was being realized (see Daniel Sax’s 2016 The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter), but the Zoom epoch has only boosted the inhuman, data-driven technological whirlpool of modern existence.
The philosopher Yuk Hui, in an absorbing dialogue with Nathan Gardels in June in the Berggruen Institute’s magazine Noēma, has perhaps come the closest to elucidating our present quandary. Expanding on Heidegger’s concerns about technicity and threat posed by cybernetics to metaphysics and western philosophy in general, Hui proposed that “we are no longer in an age of mechanistic machines described by the Encyclopedists of the Enlightenment, or of the thermodynamic machines later described by Marx, but rather in a new machine age.” Hui considers this to be a sort of “new axial age” brought about “as a result of this [technological] universalization and convergence.” Hui’s reference to the “new axial age” is altogether intriguing. The term Achsenzeit, “pivotal age” or “axial age,” was first coined by Karl Jasper to refer to that “decisive age period in human cognition,” lasting from 800 to 200 B.C., which witnessed everything from Confucius to the Buddha, the Upaniṣads to the prophets of ancient Israel, and the philosophers of ancient Greece to the teachings of Zoroaster. It was during this time, wrote the Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt, that we see the “institutionalization of the transcendental vision and the re-ordering of the world,” the “structuring of legitimation of social centers, traditions and political authority,” the “emergence of organic solidarity,” and so on. The triumph of modernity and technicity thus figures to mark the end for all intents and purposes of the world created by that first Achsenzeit.
Gardels, in his interview with Hui, suggested that “the search for a new beginning after the triumph of modernity is now underway. The global conquest of the West and its philosophy has now reached its limits and is fragmenting. The dialectic is turning. The modern Tower of Babel is poised to crumble,” to which Hui responded that this new age would indeed require a “new beginning,” one which “must have a multiplicity of starting points opened up by fragmentation.” It is this tension — between technological singularity and the fragmentation that accompanies the breakdown of the liberal order — that can help explain the intolerable cognitive dissonance of our uncertain times. Thanks to globalization, immigration, and far-reaching social networks, a politically motivated killing in Addis Ababa can, in an instant, prompt ethnic Oromos to and in Minneapolis, and of Haile Selassie in London parks. Chechens and Algerians clash in the streets of Dijon, while Turks and Kurds do likewise in Vienna. Meanwhile Minneapolitans, Dijonnais, Viennese, and the rest of us largely experience these events vicariously through Facebook, Twitter, Feedly, and the like. This bewildering admixture of the atavistic (riots, plagues, famines, global economic meltdowns) and futuristic (social media, infinite streaming options, one-day shipping, a thin film of micro-plastic spread over each and every square inch of God’s creation) defines the disruption and fragmentation of this shift from the first (analog) axial age, with its notions of organic solidarity and transcendence, to the next (digital) axial age, with its insubstantiality, deracination, and ingenious gadgetry.
I have no idea whether the “Daoist robots” or “organic AI” envisioned by Yuk Hui can save us, though I doubt they would do any worse than the “quintessentially Western singularity” of the transhumanists. I do know that the first axial age gave us the Confucian “doctrine of the mean,” or zhōngyōn — also translated as the “constant mean,” the “middle way,” the “unswerving pivot,” or the “unwobbling pivot” — with its emphasis on self-watchfulness, self-education, self-discipline, self-cultivation, lenience, and sincerity, and its appreciation of the lasting bonds between parent and child, husband and wife, ruler and subjects. These are in no way the watchwords of our present age. A body politic that could combine the sort of self-regulation propounded in the Analects with the confidence and legitimacy proposed by Maurice Berger would be in excellent health. A body politic governed by “damaged thought,” wholly given over to the insubstantiality of modernism, and which prefers destruction to imagination, will amount to little more than Baudelaire’s tormented, hysterical, and increasingly fattened goose in the devil’s poultry yard. Perhaps we can find the wherewithal to pull back from the inhuman age that beckons, this new axial age, the groundworks of which have so assiduously and cynically been laid out for all to see, and instead seek out the time-tested doctrine of the mean. “Après nous, le déluge,” as Berger cautioned, no longer applies, for “the flood is now here.” The only question is whether our collective “damaged thought” can withstand the trial that is to come.