About a year ago, when there seemed to be no shortage of bad news, I found myself with a strong craving for a good polemic fix; and, things being what they were at the time, Friedrich Nietzsche turned out to be a good way to satisfy that fix (ironically with a bit of help from Louis Andriessen). That craving seems to be returning, and this time it looks as if it is going to be satisfied by Walter Benjamin. If there was irony in the mutual reinforcement of Andriessen and Nietzsche in their approaches to bashing Plato, then it is even more ironic that I returned to reading Benjamin because the winner of the Highsmith Competition for a student-composed orchestra work, held by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has turned out to be Nicholas Pavkovic’s “Angelus Novus,” a secular cantata based on the ninth of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
This was enough to send me off to check out the source text. I quickly discovered that reading those theses was a bit like eating potato chips: I could not stop with just one. True, I could not get into Benjamin’s attack on historical materialism with quite the relish that came from reading Nietzsche's bald "Plato is boring" declaration in Twilight of the Idols (in Walter Kaufmann's translation); but Benjamin hit a rather nice stride when he turned to the immediacy of day-to-day politics.
For those who need some context, it is sufficient to remember that Benjamin died while trying to flee the Nazis. Where his polemic was at its juiciest was in his observation of the rise of Adolf Hitler and his argument that this was a consequence of not only those with political power but also the political system itself. Here is how he put it:
At the moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them. Our consideration proceeds from the insight that the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.
Here we are today, having placed our own (audacious) hopes in a new (at the time) President to turn back forces of conservatism that were laying waste to our financial systems, our prospects for health care, and the very integrity of our planet’s ecosystem. What have we discovered? The “new administration” is nothing but a collection of the same insignificant “worldlings” entrapped by the brute-force power of the rich and mighty.
Benjamin was more concerned with the rise of Fascism than with the collapse of democracy. Nevertheless, his polemic is consistent with my own effort to argue that the very nature of business inhibits democracy. The point is that my punch line for that argument (“It’s good for business!”) also explains the support of Fascism (not to mention our current dithering over spontaneous outbreaks of protests for democracy across the Middle East, because we do not know if those protesters will be “good for business”).
True, Benjamin did not stop Fascism in its tracks. Instead, he became one of its victims. Is that not a reason, however, why his words should be considered again today?