The Masochism of Civilization

Marcel Stoetzler

Originally presented at a commemorative event for Robert Fine, Warwick, Nov. 16, 2018

  1. Civilization

Human civilization is about two things: firstly, the perfecting of the techniques, technologies, organisational modes and relationships of humans’ self-preservation; secondly, expressions of the longing to escape and supersede all of these. In other words, civilization is about labour and the escape from labour. Crucially, the second depends on and presupposes the first. Finding adequate expressions for the longing to escape labour, in the form of artworks, critical theory or poetry for example, not only makes a lot of work, but has a vital, objective interest in the intensification and robust organization of work – the work of others – because an empty stomach does not like to study. In spite of its dependency on the needs of its belly and underbelly, civilization defines itself in opposition to nature, which in turn is defined as mindless, spiritless self-preservation and reproduction. Civilization, then, or with the name of its reflective form, enlightenment (without the determinate article), is mindless, spiritless self-preservation that tries to be less mindless and spiritless. This is a precarious, unstable, unhappy situation to be in. Civilization struggles to suppress its hunch that ever more intense enlightenment, ever more efficient techniques of reproduction that allow humans to escape the state of nature, the production of ever more time-consuming means for freeing time from labour, in fact mimics the state of nature. This is embarrassing because mimicry had been the first technique humans used, in the beginning, to try and control nature. We have come a long way since, and don’t really want to be reminded of those salad days. The stronger the hunch, the more the civilized hate those closer to the state of nature, especially when the latter sneak into the civilized space and, lazy and backward as they are, still try to benefit from the fruits of hard-working, sweaty, well-organized enlightenment, mistaking them perhaps for the fruits that used to grow into the mouths of the enviable hunter-gatherers of a Golden Age. The moderns hate the uncivilized for mistaking civilization for what in fact it is meant to be, nature of a higher degree, no one’s property, there for the taking. A time-saving device, meant to free time for more lounging around.

  1. Premature relaxation

But not yet. We are not out of the woods yet. Racist discourse turns the utopia of being happy without having to work into one of the worst indictments, be that the assumed happiness of those formerly known as ‘savages’ or the longed-for happiness that highly developed civilization would be able to provide, if it was not for the madness of the capitalist mode of production. Premature relaxation puts the entire project at risk, and that is to be avoided by any means, the stakes are too high: thousands of years of hard work might just go to waste. The process in which the self has alienated [entfremdet] itself from ‘mere nature’ was so painful that the self is horrified by the notion of falling back into nature (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1987: 54). This horror causes regression: the fear that humans could regress to that heart of prehistoric darkness has made them do the most horrible things – right in the heart of historical darkness: “The living memory of prehistory, of its nomadic and even more of the truly pre-patriarchal periods, has in all millennia been expunged from people’s consciousness with the most terrible sanctions” (ibid.). We cannot but feel ambivalent about the masochistic process that is civilization, but admitting so much would mean casting doubt on its validity. We defeat our doubt by going onto the attack.

  1. Racism

The memory of so much suffering had to be suppressed for us to get this far. This is where racism comes in. Racism is civilization’s preventive self-defense. Man the untiring producer, assimilating himself to his own projection of himself as the divine Creator, the earth-subjecting Subject, divine all but in name, tries to purify humanity from all not so divine, namely unproductive elements incapable of creativity, autonomy and transcendental freedom: “Exterminate all the brutes!” exclaims Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. (Conrad, 2009; near the end of part two). The world of the bourgeoisie, though, is one of mediocrity, the golden middle, disdaining all extremes. Everything is to be taken in moderation, including bourgeois modernity itself. Accordingly, racism also takes the complementary form of a struggle against those who are perceived as being too productive, too dynamic, too modern, too capitalist, and therewith are feared to endanger the ordered, smooth, pleasingly regular forward march of civilizational progress. This is the case of antisemitism in the form most relevant to late capitalism. When colonial racism is that of the heroic, violent, ecstatic bourgeoisie of the Aguirre Wrath of God type, then modern antisemitism is that of the petty-bourgeois Biedermann, the philistine embodiment of mediocrity and conformism, even when it comes in a voice as shrill as Hitler’s, whose pantomime version of a raving crusader against the infidels in the holy land only serves to make the perverse coldness of his ‘antisemitism of reason’ palatable to his less reasonable grassroots followers. Being an ideology of mediocrity, a moderate, cooled-down version of antisemitism also appeals to those who fight for a more humane, measured, restrained form of capitalism and that little extra bit of social justice and fair trade. Capitalism in its conservative, non-heroic mode wants continuous progress that does not rock the boat too much. Those perceived as over-zealous modernizers may therefore end up in the same camps where nation-, state- and capital-builders have already sent those they classified as the backward, superstitious, unproductive races. Jews found themselves there due to being construed either as unwashed Easterners or the rulers of the stock exchange and the ‘fake media’, or, for those who either were too thick to notice the contradiction or relished the paradox, both at the same time.

  1. Progress

The rhetoric of creation and productivity (including that of healthy fresh humans) provides a foundation for nationalist projects of class compromise across the antagonisms that fragment what at the time of the French Revolution still was thought of uniformly as ‘the Third Estate’. It is built on the cultural memory of all the suffering that humanity had to inflict on itself to get this far. Now, nearly there, gazes firmly fixed on Paradise, the sails stiff in the winds of progress, civilization battles on two fronts: it feels compelled to prevent the less civilized, less disciplined, less modern to spoil it all, but also rash, over-keen, über-modern upstarts like ‘the Jews’ who left Eastern, third-world darkness behind too rapidly, too recently to be able to make a genuine and responsible contribution to modernity. Those who pride themselves on being the creators of the world constantly worry about the danger of falling back behind the achieved status. Therefore they fear the dangerous races, enemies within the human species (Balibar, 1991: 58ff). At the helm of the creation, modern racists fight the dangerous races in order to save humanity. To the extent that they are aware of the contradiction this constitutes, the racists suffer from bad conscience and concoct sophisticated excuses: ‘race science’. Rational man does not like to think of himself as slaughtering others without good reason, however threadbare the reasoning involved. In calmer times, when the economy ticks over nicely and civilization’s discontents are kept in check by its comforts, the nation-state shows itself in its more liberal, multicultural guise, reflecting the fact that level-headed, well-integrated nationals wish to see themselves enrolled in a good, patriotic, not a bad, racist nation. (The distinction is logocentric: while we have two sets of concepts to think about the nation, we like to think they are in fact different things: we attribute more reality to the concepts we created than to the complex reality accessible through our concepts.) The dangerous races – like the dangerous classes with which they overlap – are advised however not to over-stretch the worried liberals’ good-will and tolerance (Hage, 1998). Multiculture ends where societal cohesion is at risk, which in a society whose synthesis is constituted by an antagonism is always the case.



Balibar, Etienne (1991) “Racism and Nationalism,” in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein. London: Verso, pp. 37-67.

Conrad, Joseph (2009) [1899] Heart of Darkness.    <>.

Hage, Ghassan (1998) White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Annandale: Pluto Press Australia.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno (1987) Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente in Horkheimer, Max, Gesammelte Schriften Band 5: Dialektik der Aufklärung und Schriften 1940–1950. Herausgegeben von Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, pp. 11-290.

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