A Modern Tragedy
Marshall Berman’s classic analysis of Faust can help us come to terms with the existential challenges of the 21st century. Climate change, coronavirus and the rise of China are interconnected elements of an unfolding crisis of modernity itself.
In his 1936 film, The Shape of Things To Come, H.G. Wells grappled with the apparently inescapable violence of modernity. A utopian by nature, the experience of the Great War, the Depression and the unfolding spectacle of Stalinism pushed H.G. Wells to pose that most modern question of all: are the rewards of economic development worth the human cost? Wells, an eternal optimist, characteristically comes down on the side of the moderns. The world of Things To Come, is reduced to barbarism by a succession of apocalyptic wars, only to be rescued by a new society of modernist “Aviators”. The Aviators, through the implied advantages of a communist type social organisation, have acquired for themselves a monopoly on high technology, with which they build a utopia from the ruins of war torn capitalism. However, the real question posed by the film is not one of capitalism versus communism, but of how to live in a modernist utopia once it is arrived at. The second act of the film is set within the Aviator’s future world, wracked by a grave political conflict over the fundamental direction of their perfect society. One faction points to the peace and material abundance they have achieved and asserts that, having met their goals, progress must cease in order that mankind may enjoy the fruits of its labour. Another smaller, more militant faction demands that progress must never stop, and that aspirational struggle is the basic justification for society’s existence. This faction proposes a daring programme of space exploration, which the other faction denounces as the needless sacrifice of the youth to assuage the arrogance of the old.
In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marhsall Berman invites us to consider this paradox in terms of Goethe’s epic version of the Faust myth. Unlike in previous incarnations of the story, Goethe’s Faust is not merely trying to glorify and redeem himself, he is trying to reshape the entire world with him. Faust makes his pact with Mephistopheles not to acquire sex, wealth and power, but to abolish the gothic darkness of German feudalism in order to achieve a bright new dawn for a mankind in control of its environment. In achieving his aim and destroying the old order completely, Faust commits the ultimate evil of destroying what was beautiful alongside what was ugly. In doing so, Faust destroys himself. Having created his new world he sees no further reason to live and thus perishes. For Berman, Goethe has made Faust a metaphor for modernity itself. In failing to take control of our material universe, mankind resigns itself to barbarism. But, the more successful the modernist is in their endeavour, the greater the barbarian they themselves become. In the end, Faust finds that he has wrought so much destruction that he questions the rightness of his choice, but can no longer escape it regardless. The message is that despite the certain knowledge that our most noble instincts bring forth destructive results, we are forced to carry on regardless.
The Climate Crisis, being the direct result of our modern mastery of our material universe, inspires in us the ultimate anti-modern reaction. We are filled with a sense that our own consumer capitalist Faustian pact has come at too high a price. This knowledge causes us to hate ourselves and all our works but, having burned our bridges to the past, we have no place of safety to return to. Political actors of both the left and right stare down the barrel of neither going forward nor backwards, forced to carry on as we are, even though we know that is exactly what we must not do. Simple, everyday symbols of consumption like plastic carrier bags have become sources of existential horror. We symbolically ban the bags and recycle the packaging even in the full knowledge that 70% of global emissions are produced by just 100 companies. We find ourselves trapped in a futureless present, in which material abundance is juxtaposed against spiritual and ideological destitution. Mark Fisher’s seminal 2009 Capitalist Realism artfully and succinctly describes this condition of individual powerlessness in the midst of material plenty.
Faced with the extremities of the 20th century, we have become terrified of the epic struggle which the challenge of climate change demands of us. Having convinced ourselves that the cure will be more catastrophic than the disease, we reject even the most basic democratisation of economic decision making as revolutionary nonsense. Worse, we are barely able to enact elementary public health measures in the middle of a global pandemic. A society that once systematically vaccinated away smallpox, polio and the bubonic plague now finds itself confronted by a mass movement demanding the abolition of vaccines themselves. Frustrated and demoralised, we are searching for a way out involving as little actual collective endeavour as possible. Whilst basically accepting the inevitable, we attempt to ease the discomfort as best as we can. The impulse to overcome has been exhausted. Getting by will do.
Not everyone is resigned to sinking luxuriously beneath the waves. Many advocate a full-scale retreat from the impossible contradictions of modern society. The anti-moderns propose an economy of de-growth and sustainability; locally grown food and locally generated power. But, unless they can first demolish the great engines of centralisation, all these utopian visions amount to is an isolated community of Ashrams, Kibbutzes and Jonestowns, fenced off against the mass disintegration of the whole. The anti-modern reflex is to build a fortified camp in the wasteland; pastoral utopia morphs before our eyes into an eco-fascist nightmare, in which we can no longer afford to sustain the existence of the majority of human beings. In this, the super-rich are well ahead of the rest of us with their self sufficient private islands and fortified compounds. They have already withdrawn into a hedonistic despair. They know what they have done and they have decided to wall themselves off before the torches and pitchforks arrive at the gates.
In stark opposition to the social malaise we are experiencing in the West stands the emerging Chinese superpower. Its rapidly globalising state-led market economy, explicit ideology of development, and omnipresent political bureaucracy contains elements of all previous capitalisms and socialisms wrapped into one. China has, in effect, taken up the challenge of modernity that the First, Second and Third Worlds have attempted and subsequently abandoned.
As in the society of H.G. Wells’ Aviators, to argue the toss about whether China is a capitalist or communist state is to entirely miss the point. It embodies the fundamental dynamics of modernity which underpin both systems. The Chinese Communist Party, truthfully, boasts of its unprecedented achievements in the abolition of basic poverty, its plans to combat climate change and its ability to tackle a deadly pandemic. The West, in turn, points to the CCP’s ruthless use of political control and social engineering. Yesterday it was Tiananmen Square and Tibet, today it is Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Same old China. To agonise between the realms of individual freedom and collective social endeavour is, once again, to miss the point. China is no more blind to the violent consequence of its chosen path than we in the West are blind to the stagnation and ossification of our own system. Both are responses to the Faustian pact offered by modernity itself.
If the great and bloody episodes of modern development teach us anything, it is that no economic or political contradiction is irresolvable if you are willing to apply enough force. The British industrial revolution, the American expansion westward and the Soviet five year plans each advanced the modernisation of human society at tremendous human cost. Although its tempting to view the slow decline of post-war capitalist prosperity, or the pathetic implosion of Soviet socialism in terms of the weight of the economic contradictions which beset them, Marshall Berman’s reading of Faust asks us to consider the failure of modernity in a different light. It was not the immense economic cost of development, but the withering away of the foundations of political belief, which caused these societies to reject the futures they were building. The question for us in the West is not whether we have the ability to rise to the existential challenges of our time, but whether we have the will. The question for China is not whether it can achieve its superpower ambitions, it’s whether it will be able to live with the consequences of its success.