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Precarity and Crisis in One Way Street

The collection of fragments titled One-Way Street is an extended discussion of precarity and
crisis in interwar Germany. Benjamin sees Germany then in the midst of the Weimar period,
before the Nazis took power as caught up in a kind of regressive collectivism born of
capitalism. The more people are driven by narrow private interests in their actions, the more they
are determined by mass instincts.

These mass instincts are increasingly alienated from life. Benjamin believes this makes people
insensitive in terms of how to escape a coming disaster. People are so rigidly attached to
accustomed ways of life as to forfeit their intellect even in crisis. This insight has a certain literal
significance in the fact that modern people cannot foresee natural disasters, whereas
some indigenous groups and animals can. Some ecological radicals such as John Zerzan believe
that alienated people have become massively insensitive to our bodies and context. Benjamin is
mostly referring, however, to peoples lack of a revolutionary instinct in conditions of economic
and political crisis.

Benjamin sees the crisis as much deeper than the economic level. Close relationships are thrown
into crisis by the piercing clarity cast on them by the crisis. The centrality of money disrupts
relationships, undermining trust, calm, and health. It is corrosive of conviviality. (Later,
Benjamin adds that life in common, such as eating, is important to maintain conviviality. Berlin
was noticeably lacking in life in common). Similarly, warmth is ebbing from everyday objects,
which gently repel attachment and put up barriers against people. Objects feel like symbols of
wealth or poverty, and nothing more. Human movements are impeded in their becoming by an
intractable world which offers resistance to their unfolding. The cost of housing and transport
destroy the feeling of freedom of domicile. Workers become surly and unfriendly, as
representatives of materials which have become hostile. Nature also seems uncontrollable. Even
urban areas feel as if they are at the mercy of elemental forces.

Personal reactions to this situation have an atomising, competitive effect. Each sees the general
crisis but seeks exceptions for her/his own field of action. Hence there is a constant struggle to
save the prestige of specific areas from the general collapse, rather than to reject the universal
situation. As each tries to reconcile the survival of a particular zone with the general collapse,
people become stuck in perspectival illusions arising from isolated standpoints.

To outsiders, the national temperament seems to have become barbaric and violent in an
incomprehensible way. According to Benjamin, this appearance invisible to those within the
process occurs because people are wholly subordinated, to circumstances, squalor and
stupidity, to collective forces. The sense of any right to live individually has disappeared.
People also develop a frenetic hatred of the life of the mind. They annihilate it through forming
ranks, counting bodies and advancing.

Benjamin also discusses various everyday practices in this context. For instance, he argues that
eroticism is subjugated to privacy in modern practices of flirting. Such private courting is really
directed to the mans competitors, not the woman. Benjamin calls for a more public and
dialogical erotic practice. Similarly, the appreciation of cosmic powers can only occur
collectively.

In analysing the interwar crisis in Germany, Benjamin criticises the bourgeois response which
sees catastrophe and instability in the event of dispossession. Instead, he argues that the
phenomena of decline are themselves stable. People feel that things cant go on like this simply
because they are subjectively affected, having benefited from the prior situation. (This is rather
different from the permanent disaster he theorises in his theses on history). Benjamin calls on his
contemporary readers to direct their gaze to the extraordinary event in which alone salvation
now lies. He believes a sufficiently intense attention of this kind could bring about a miracle.

The crisis comes partly from the victory of the bourgeoisie. The idea of class war, Benjamin
claims, is misleading. There is indeed a struggle, but not one where either contender can win.
The bourgeoisie remains doomed whether it loses or not. The question is whether the bourgeoisie
will self-destruct or be overthrown and hence, whether thousands of years of cultural
development can be continued. If the bourgeoisie is not beaten before a certain point of
technological development, everything is lost. A contemporary reader might wonder whether this
point has already been passed, as in the point in Baudrillard in which history is lost; or whether,
perhaps, the onset of climate change is the pending end-point.

At a deeper level, Benjamin theorises a kind of ecological alienation. Human society has
degenerated to the point where it greedily grasps at natures gifts. As a result, the earth becomes
impoverished and ungenerous. The sacrificial shafts dug into Mother Earth reveal a continued
collective relationship to the cosmos. Yet this relationship has lost direction. Mastery has
become a goal in itself. Technology should not be mastery of nature, but of the relationship
between humanity and nature. This relationship should be substantive, ecstatic and creative.
Living substance must once more conquer the frenzy of destruction.

Crisis also has an effect of making social construction unusually visible. Just as bombing lays
bare the foundations of buildings, so crisis lays bare the unconscious or habitual basis on which
lives are built. People usually pass through life, leaving behind their unconscious and their life-
questions like foliage.

Poverty for instance is shamefully visible in phenomena such as begging. It is worsened in its
experience by being shared so widely, so it cannot be endured in isolation. Benjamin denounces
the growing hostility to beggars, contrasting it with their honoured position in various religions.
He says that their presence is absolutely justified. They are, implicitly, symbolising the
disavowed aspects of the present. The expulsion of beggars, it might be suggested, it part of the
attempt to create individual spheres isolated from the general crisis.

It is informative, if scary, to compare this account of inter-war Germany to Britain today. Now as
then, people are subordinated to mass forces through their capitalistic private interest. Now as
then, belief in individual rights has deserted the majority. People take refuge in a repressive
collectivism aimed against scapegoats. And people try to carve out personal zones of security
from a general situation of crisis. Now as then, few question the neoliberal conjuncture which
has created the crisis, even as it threatens total collapse. Now as then, capitalism is going through
a large crisis which may be a crisis of overproduction.

Austerity and recession destabilise personal lives on a mass scale. They are simultaneously
menacing and fascinating. Even some of the symptoms are the same rising house prices, a loss
of the freedom to move, surliness of workers and officials, impenetrability of spaces, the
criminalisation of begging, generalised anxiety, a sense of impending (natural and artificial)
risks. Are we, one might ask, in a Weimar period today?

Fascism and Aesthetics

The rise of fascism in Europe was perhaps the epochal transformation of Benjamins era, and had
menacing overtones for him as a radical and a Jew. Benjamin offers an original theory of
fascism, which situates it within cultural transformations. He rejects both the orthodox Marxist
view that fascism is simply a dictatorship of finance capital, and the progressivist view that it is
some kind of premodern or anti-modern relapse into barbarism. Instead, he argues that capitalism
arises from particular changes in everyday culture, or ideology in an Althusserian sense, arising
from the development of capitalism.

In the epilogue to The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin argues
that fascism seeks to respond to proletarianisation and massification without altering the property
structure. It does this by giving the masses a chance to express themselves, as a substitute for
power. It offers emotional rewards instead of material rewards.

Fascism logically leads to the aestheticising of politics. Politics is turned into the production of
beauty, according to a certain aesthetic. This is achieved through an immense apparatus for the
production of ritual values. Benjamin is thinking of the Nazi propaganda-machine, with its
choreographed torch-lit marches and rallies, iconic posters and statues, and films such
as Triumph of the Will. This machine is widely recognised as a forerunner of the modern PR
industry.

Fascism is thus partly a product of spectacle. Benjamin relates it to the spectacular nature of
commodities, which are transformed in their presence from simple objects to spectacle or
phantasmagoria. Fascism expands the logic of spectacle into the field of politics, with its
charismatic leaders, eye-catching posters, movie-like Manichean discourse, torchlit rallies, and
powerful logos and symbols.

According to Benjamin, fascism inevitably leads to war. War is the only way to channel mass
movements and intense emotions, without challenging the property system. It simultaneously
serves, in classic Marxist fashion, to channel the forces of production which are blocked by the
property system.

Some Marxists see crises such as those of the 1930s and today as crises of overproduction. This
means that capitalism is in crisis because it cant get people to consume as much as it can
produce, usually because people arent being paid enough. As a result, people are left
unemployed and machines and factories are left idle. People who adhere to this theory see the
Second World War as a resolution of the crisis of overproduction. The state artificially inflated
demand by producing weapons. It then destroyed a lot of other resources by using them. This got
people producing again, and was a way out of the crisis.

Benjamin is unusual in linking this account to the cultural usefulness of war. For Benjamin, war
does not only serve capitalism by consuming resources. It also provides a way to channel intense
emotions and frustrations which would otherwise destabilise the system.

Benjamin links the fascist aesthetic to the Futurist Marinettis claim that war is beautiful.
The Futurists were a mainly Italian art movement whose work celebrated modern technology,
speed and power. Initially progressive, some of them went over to fascism. Their aesthetic is
often associated by Benjamin with fascism. He viewed them as symptomatic of the aspect of
fascism which glorified technology.

The aspect of war which can most easily be aestheticised is the display of technology, and the
power of human agents as masters of powerful technology. In order to aestheticise war, it is
necessary to edit out human suffering, whether of soldiers or civilians. Benjamin suggests,
however, that destruction is integral to the process. Humanity is now so alienated that it can
contemplate its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure.

Marinetti expected war to supply sensory and aesthetic enjoyment in a world changed by
technology. This is the ultimate in alienation. Humanity observes itself from outside, as an object
of contemplation. Benjamin sees this as the culmination of the idea of art for arts sake or in
Marinettis slogan, let art be created, let the world perish. The appropriate response, according
to Benjamin, is to politicise art.

War is further aestheticised by inter-war writers such as Ernst Jnger. In his Theories of German
Fascism, engaging with Jnger, Benjamin extends his critique of fascistic trends in art. Jnger
extends the idea of art for arts sake to war. (This war for wars sake also appears in
Deleuzes digression on the bad type of war machine, which takes war as its object).

Mass technological warfare is an image of everyday actuality the destructiveness and


meaninglessness of mass alienated technology. But it appears to the likes of Jnger as a magical
force of eternal war. This leads to a mystical view of war: the state must show itself worthy of
the magical forces of war.

For Benjamin, this is not simply a matter of false consciousness. Rather, it is derived from a
particular primal experience, or constitutive trauma. Jnger was a professional soldier for
whom warfare is the natural or habitual environment. His literature defends his particular
professional habitus, his conventional way of life. He simply celebrates what he is familiar with,
without any basis for preferring it. Benjamin asks, Where do you come from? And what do you
know of peace? The criticism here is that Jnger and those like him cant extol war as preferable
to peace, because they only know war.

The authors of war literature, according to Benjamin, are expressing a particular class
perspective. Many of them are specialist soldiers, commandos and engineers the military
equivalent of the managerial class. The ideology of endless war, of a magical power of war, is
implicitly portrayed as a kind of class ideology of the elite soldier.

These former soldiers were to become the social basis for fascism, as Benjamin recognised.
Many of them graduated from the army to the Freikorps to the Nazi Stormtroopers. Today, this
underlines the importance of demobilising and reintegrating former soldiers many of them
economically disadvantaged and war-traumatised in the aftermath of conflicts. It also
underlines the persisting importance of militarised masculinity in the securitisation of civilian
spaces.

According to Benjamin, the literature he refers to is an effect of World War 1. Technological


warfare has exhibited a disastrous gap between massive destructive effects of technology, and
minimal moral illumination arising from such effects. This produces a kind of meaninglessness
(a common theme in Frankfurt School work). The main danger today stems from the difficulties
in organising human relationships in accord with the relationship to nature and technology, so as
to use technology as a key to happiness instead of destruction. In short, people are losing control
of their technology because they retain competitive relationships which lead to mass destruction.
Benjamin sees his era as having the last chance to overcome this discrepancy. This would be a
transition to socialism through the conversion of the world war into a global civil war.

Technological warfare dispenses with the symbols of heroism. War has become akin to sports in
that its achievements are not so much personal as record-setting how many are killed. The
escalating power to kill in huge numbers associated with gas warfare (and later, nuclear
weapons) renders war extremely risky, and predominantly offensive (rather than defensive). The
protection of civilians is lost. The winner is now the side which conquers the war, not the
adversary, and avoids losing control of its meanings and effects.

Analysis

Much of Benjamins approach applies equally, or even more, to contemporary warfare. The
technological nature of warfare has only increased. The aestheticising of war is certainly present
in modern politics. Indeed, it has only been aided by modern technology which captures the
battlefield as if it were a video-game. Modern war footage imitates the aestheticisation of war in
cinema, parading the geometrical beauty of technology and hiding the human effects of war.
During the invasion of Iraq, only sources such as al-Jazeera focused on footage of human
casualties. Western media filled their coverage with long-range explosion footage and displays
of technological power.

Similarly, the ideology of the magic of war, of eternal war, has reappeared in the
characteristic stance of the action hero, in the endless war against terrorism, and in displaced
form, in discourses of securitisation which impute heroic status to soldiers and police. Today, the
risk-management of security threats ever more closely identified with a managerial stance
goes hand-in-hand with the technocratic glorification of those who carry it out. This could almost
be seen as the conversion of Jngers class, the war-specialists, into paramilitary police.
In Benjamins account, fascism is closely connected to the spectacular and epic in film,
literature, music and art. There is little question Benjamin would have related modern
blockbuster movies to the fascist approach to art, particularly when they use special effects to
aestheticise warfare. There is a certain vein of Marxist film criticism which takes an approach
similar to Benjamins although other critics may see its readings as too reductive.

On another level, the tabloid press offers fascistic expressive fulfilments to its readership.
Tabloid stories seem to be selected less for their (often very low) truth-value or relevance to
readers lives, but instead for their ability to produce particular emotions and channel their
expression. One could almost term the tabloids an aesthetic force of moral outrage. They provide
vicarious enjoyment from the repression stemming from the moral panics they instigate, while
also maintaining enough dissatisfaction to prevent any sense of completion.

This raises the question of the relationship between fascism (and other movements of what I term
the reactive network type), and the expressive/instrumental dichotomy. Elsewhere, I have
argued that transformative action is typically expressive, whereas the system encourages
instrumental ways of relating. Yet Benjamin is here arguing that fascism is also emotionally
expressive indeed, this is the core of its power. Does this mean Im wrong about the need for
expressionism?

I would argue that Benjamin is right, but that a further division separates fascist expression from
radical expression. Fascist and reactive movements are also deeply expressive, but on axes
displaced from those of political economy usually, essentialised inter-group binaries. They
offer some of the same things radical movements do: a collective belonging, a cause, access to
emotional intensities, public rituals and activities, ritualised confrontations, powerful Manichean
imagery. But these means are attached to categories which reproduce the dominant system:
stereotypes of out-groups, the reinforcement of pro-system hierarchies, the reproduction of
emotional repression. It often seems to leftists as if fascists are taking the anger people feel
towards their bosses, and telling them to direct this anger onto Jews, Muslims, or other folk-
devils.

The crucial difference is that fascism is relying on power over others as its means of expression.
It allows in-groups to express their superiority to out-groups through constant, highly visible
performance. Sometimes this performance is direct, as with the EDL. Sometimes it is indirect, as
with tabloid campaigns which influence government policy. Either way, fascism is a kind of
energy-converter. It allows social status to be transformed into enjoyment. It thus provides the
basis for a politics of negative patronage where, instead of receiving material benefits,
supporters simply receive status. Hence, while it produces networked power (counterposed to
state hierarchies), it also reproduces alienated power.

There also seems to be an aesthetic politics of radicalism oppression can come to seem ugly,
and to be contested by aesthetic means, from graffiti to carnival. How does this differ from
fascist aesthetic politics? One crucial difference is that it is participatory in a different way.
Fascism is participatory in that it compels participation, but ultimately, its members are
subordinate to Stirnerian spooks. Radicalism is participatory in such a way that differences feed
into the construction of its spaces.