Ernst Jünger on Total Mobilisation in the Age of the Worker

28 Oct

In this post, I will examine Ernst Jünger’s interwar writings, particularly as he moved from his recollections and reflections on the Great War (see earlier post) to a more ambitious analysis of the social and political turmoil that ensued. Sharpening his central problematique of nihilism and its overcoming, he would see in the commotions of his time the sign that the timorous bourgeois liberal societies of the nineteenth century were about to be swept away by a new technological age of total societal mobilisation and armed conflict. Anticipating and heralding the advent of the totalitarian regimes that were germinating as he wrote, the obvious points of convergence between these writings and fascist ideology have unsurprisingly made them Jünger’s most controversial. As objectionable as his political views were in their own right, Jünger was nonetheless never a National Socialist, spurning the advances made to him by the Party and having little truck with its “blood and soil” creed. He did however develop keen insights into the historical escalation of war and accompanying demands of total mobilisation alongside a withering critique of liberal societies’ preeminent concern with security and comfort.

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Demobilised in 1923, Jünger spent the next three years studying zoology and developing a life-long passion for entomology (he reputedly amassed a collection of 40,000 beetles, even giving his name to a species he is credited with discovering). During those years, he also read philosophy, particularly the works of Nietzsche and Spengler. Departing from the university in 1926, Jünger then began a period of intense writing for nationalist publications and participation in the circles of the Conservative Revolutionary movement, becoming notably close to Ernst Niekisch, the central ideologist of National-Bolshevism. To enter into a detailed consideration of the ideological content of such seemingly paradoxical constellations would take us too far from our central object but it is nonetheless useful to remind ourselves of the ideological complexity and fluidity of Weimar Germany that are all too often repressed when we view the period from a post-WWII standpoint. Jünger’s independent streak also meant his associations ranged more widely than most, frequenting during this time left-wing writers such as Bertolt Brecht, Erich Mühsam, and Ernst Toller. It is within this eclectic milieu and the context of generalised crisis that his political thought was formed, leading to the publication of a series of essays in the first few years of the 1930s. Fascinated by the social and cultural effects of photography, Jünger also put together several collections of photobooks from which I have drawn the images that accompany this post.[1]

The first of these publications was the brief essay Total Mobilisation in which we find Jünger’s formulation of the fundamental principle of the age made manifest in the Great War and the period of upheaval that followed it, namely that of the increasing mobilisation of all available energies and the concomitant sundering of society from all its traditional moorings. He argues there that “the process by which the growing conversion of life into energy, the increasingly fleeting content of all binding ties in deference to mobility, gives an ever-more radical character to the act of mobilisation.”[2] This escalation towards total mobilisation ultimately “expresses the secret and inexorable claim to which our life in the age of masses and machines subjects us.” “Each individual life becomes, ever more unambiguously, the life of a worker” so that “following the wars of knights, kings, and citizens, we now have wars of workers.”[3] In sum:

the image of war as armed combat merges into the more extended image of a gigantic work process. In addition to the armies that meet on the battlefields, originate the modern armies of commerce and transport, foodstuffs, the manufacture of armaments – the army of work in general. In the final phase, which was already hinted at toward the end of the last war, there is no longer any movement whatsoever – be it that of the homeworker at her sewing machine – without at least indirect use for the battlefield. In this unlimited marshalling of potential energies, which transforms the warring industrial countries into volcanic forges, we perhaps find the most striking sign of the dawn of the age of work.[4]

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Under total mobilisation, tanks and tractors participate equally in the warring activity

Jünger would subsequently develop these ideas in The Worker, the key work of this period. A lengthy and at times rambling work with philosophical pretentions that arguably exceed the author’s abilities in this domain, the essay is nonetheless the most systematic attempt by Jünger to provide an account of the new age that was being ushered in under the aegis of the figure of the Worker. Heidegger held the book in particular esteem, dedicating to it an entire semester of teaching in 1939-40 at the University of Freiburg and declaring that it provided “a description of European nihilism in the phase which succeeded the First World War” and constituted a work which itself “belongs to the phase of active nihilism.”[5]

Jünger’s notion of the Worker is manifestly not that of socialist discourse which he dismisses as still mired in bourgeois conceptions.[6] First and foremost a metaphysical conception, the instantiation of the figure of the Worker is to be found in the wider mobilisation of energies that can be increasingly observed within both capitalist and socialist societies. Jünger is also at pains to distance himself from the racialist theories prevalent at the time, insisting that “within the landscape of work race has nothing to do with biological conceptions of race” and that “the figure of the Worker mobilises the entire human stock without discrimination.”[7] Nor are women exempt from the process of mobilisation, equally called upon to master the machines and take up arms.

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Opposed to the figure of the Worker is that of the bourgeois as the bearer of an enfeebled nihilistic existence concerned merely with creature comforts and petty self-interest. Thus “the bourgeois person is perhaps best characterised as one who places security among the highest of values and conducts his life accordingly.”[8] Jünger takes particular aim at the efforts of liberal societies to ward away pain and discomfort in contrast with the “heroic and cultic world” that confronts and masters pain through an objectification of the body in the service of a higher calling. The bourgeois can therefore only relate “to pain as the power to be avoided at all cost, because here pain confronts the body not as an outpost but as the main force and essential core of life.”[9] Jünger however invokes a “cunning of pain”, insisting that “no claim […] is more certain than the one pain has on life” and that “even the individual is not fully free from pain in [the] joyful state of security” promised by liberal societies. After all what is boredom “other than the dissolution of pain in time”?[10]

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The Bourgeois and the Worker

And so we can already glimpse the world beyond nihilism on the horizon since “the age of security has been superseded with surprising speed by another, in which the values of technology prevail.”[11] The bourgeois had risen to prominence in the nineteenth century, progressively imposing his values of constitutionalism, contractualism, and individual liberty upon the previous aristocratic and dynastic order. Yet it was the outcome of the trial of arms that was ultimately decisive, the superior sources of military power unlocked by conscription made possible through the realisation of bourgeois liberty and emancipation from absolutist rule. Now technology and social mobilisation were ineluctably ushering in the age of the Worker by imposing their own conceptions and necessities on the bourgeois order of life:

Wherever man comes into the orbit of technique, he is confronted with an unavoidable either-or. It is for him to either accept its peculiar means and to speak its language or to perish. But if one accepts them – and this is very important – one makes oneself not only the subject of technical processes, but also simultaneously their object.[12]

Old and new styles of militarism

Old and new styles of militarism

Jünger thus believed he could detect the emergence of a new humanity at one with technology and the demands of total mobilisation and which would found new values in place of the old hollow idols toppled in the turmoil of the age, the present anarchy being “nothing else than the first necessary step that leads to a new hierarchy of values.” He would soon witness the ascent to power of a regime no less millenarian in its ambition to stake a claim on the future. And yet Jünger would always keep his distance from the Nazis, even as they courted him and held up his war writings as exemplary. Having already declined an invitation by Goebbels to serve as party deputy in the Reichstag in 1927, he would also refuse all the honours, including literary, that he was offered after 1933 and retreated to the German countryside, ceasing all overt political writing. In 1939, he did however publish an allegorical tale entitled On the Marble Cliffs that was widely perceived to be a veiled critique of Hitler and the Nazi state on the eve of the Second World War, prompting the Völkischer Beobachter, the official newspaper of the NSDAP, to write that Jünger was flirting with a bullet to the head. Reportedly spared at the personal instruction of Hitler who admired his war service, Jünger would return to the Werhmacht as a captain in 1939 but would find himself on the whole at a remove from the frontline during this new global conflagration. As we will see in the next post, he would come out of it with a much appeased tone to that of his interwar years but still clinging to the hope that the crisis of nihilism was about to be overcome.

While Jünger’s predictions of the demise of liberal societies (certainly not a view he was alone in sharing, both on the left and the right, in the early 1930s) proved erroneous, his writings of this period can nonetheless be read as an acute intuiting of the contemporaneous ideological and material tendencies. Rational organisation and technical optimisation were reaching ever deeper into the core of being, blurring the boundaries of human and machine. Powerful energies were everywhere being galvanised and marshalled before being unleashed in a total war that would ravage nations and cost the lives of millions. Nor would mobilisation cease at the conclusion of this latest bout of bloodletting with the two superpowers still standing amidst the ruins soon locked into the deadly embrace of nuclear deterrence under the aegis of an all-encompassing Cold War.

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“The performance of the means and people will be numerically refined”


[1] All the photos here are drawn from Die Veränderte Welt (“The World Transformed”), the photobook that appeared in 1933 as a visual companion to The Worker.

[2] Ernst Jünger, “Total Mobilisation”, trans. Joel Golb & Richard Wolin in Richard Wolin (ed.), The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), p. 126

[3] Ibid., p. 128

[4] Ibid., p.126

[5] Martin Heidegger, The Question of Being (London: Vision Press, 1959), p. 40

[6] Ernst Jünger, Der Arbeiter: Herrschaft und Gestalt in Sämtliche Werke, Band 8 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981), p. 141

[7] Ibid., p. 75

[8] Ernst Jünger, “On Danger” New German Critique 59 (Spring-Summer 1993), p. 27

[9] Ernst Jünger, On Pain (New York: Telos, 2008), p .17

[10] Ibid., p .13

[11] Ibid., p. 46

[12] Jünger, Der Arbeiter, p. 82

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