“A new categorical imperative has been imposed…upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen”.
Theodore Adorno in Negative Dialectics.
After 1945, Adorno returned to Germany following his escape to the United States, and was dismayed at the silence and denial of far too many Germans of the horrors they had witnessed or taken part in. Many in positions of power and influence were silent about Hitler, and Adorno’s countrymen appeared still to be bending the knee to power:
“The inarticulate character of apolitical conviction, the readiness to submit to every manifestation of actual powers, the instant accommodation to whatever new situation emerges, all this is merely an aspect of the same regression, If it is true that the manipulative control of the masses always brings about a regressive formation of humanity, and if Hitler’s drive to power essentially involved the relationship of this development ‘at a single stroke’, we can only say that he, and the collapse that followed, has succeeded in providing the required infantalisation”.
Germans were not the only ones to be infantilised. It is my belief that in many countries this process occurs. It matters not in small countries, except of course to those who experience it. However, in those countries that have nuclear weapons and a military-industrial complex it is highly dangerous.
The infantilisation of the American public was to have its own tragic consequences in the 1960’s. The lessons regarding the conditions allowing the rise of national socialism seemed to have been already forgotton.
On the BBC right now is a documentary on the Vietnam war. It should be required viewing. One tragic note is the willingness of many young American men to sign up and go fight ‘communists’ with absolutely no idea what they were doing or why. They had no history of colonialism or the role the US pre-war, and they relied on ideas about American flag waving exceptualism. Many believed they had great leaders and that they all were fighting a just war. The poor working class and blacks were drafted and over represented in the ranks. Not until the draft started hitting the middle class did opposition to the war move from ideological to self-interest. It remained the case that white middle class status, and money, protected many from the nasty, brutish and often short life in the front line. US tactics in bombing and clearing villages amounted to genocide and was counterproductive. It acted as recruiter for the North Vietnamese. The US metric for success was ‘body count’ in the absence of clearly identified strategic targets. It often did not matter whose body ended up as ‘body count’.
Infantilisation helped create the Vietnam tragedy, increasing infantilisation of publics since then underpinned the wars in Afghanisation, Iraq, and Libya. No doubt Putin infantilises Russians in order to establish and maintain his own fiefdom.
We don’t need an Auschwitz when we have heavily armed hubris.
Despite Stephen Pinker’s description of actually reducing global violence and war, I fear that right now, in 2017, the manipulation of the masses is bringing about a regression towards our more base natures, and is based on an infantilised political culture that is ill equipped to prevent another Auschwitz. We have people who can barely discuss politics without recourse to cliché and banality; we have many only too willing to accept the erosion of freedoms, the junking of human rights, in the name of security; and we have knee jerk unthinking reactions to existential and humanitarian challenges which are often the result of our own actions. It is not Pinker’s description of reducing violence that is wrong, but the conclusions we might draw about future peace, based on inductive logic, which might prove fatally flawed unless we continue to address Adorno’s ‘thoughts and actions’.
So, what thoughts and actions are now required to uphold this new imperative outlined by Adorno?
Reject ‘Great Man’ history and leadership, and look who supports him. Hitler came to power with the full support of the ‘supermanagers’ of the business elites. He was elected. It was not a Nazi coup.
Be sceptical towards notions of heroic militarisation. We laugh at parades of military hardware in Red Square or Pyon Yang but suspend such judgment as to the true nature of military hardware in our own armed forces.
Be suspicious of references to national mythologies and symbols. We love the Zulu story but forget why we there in the first place. We cite Agincourt, Crecy, Trafalgar and Waterloo as triumphs but forget what the wars were about.
Be critical of the overly simplistic demonisation of others. The North Vietnamese were swivel eyed donkey headed communists rather than fighting a colonial war; North Koreans are uncritical or oppressed followers of the Dear Leader rather than fearing a foreign power who killed 20% of the population in the last war; the Chinese people are poised to impose empire through economic domination rather than recovering from a century of Imperial domination by western powers.
Consider the difference between patriotism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, and supremacism. When does pride in a country elide into hatred, mistrust and fear?
Prevent security from becoming the overriding driver in the public sphere? What are we being secured from and what is being lost? Do we want the police to be armed and asking for our papers? Do we want airport security at railways stations? Is all of the security proportionate?
Challenge ahistorical accounts of current achievements. Ask how the cities of London, Liverpool and Bristol became global centres of wealth.
Remember colonialism, imperialism and slavery have always arisen and have to be defeated in each generation.
Learn about political ideologies, philosophies and theories.
Ask power upon what basis it demands our obedience.
Stop knee jerk reactions to new challenges. Migrants fleeing war pose serious questions about our humanity. This requires humane reactions.
Accept the plurality, diversity and fluidity of culture, that culture is dynamic and changes in time (temporally) and in location (spatially). Englishness and Britishness’ have always had diversity within them and they are not defined by old maids cycling in the morning mists. Fish and Chips was foreign once and have we forgotten the origins of Tikka Masala?
Critique the communication of class based, ethnic based, gender based manipulations through press and broadcast media. The Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun have owners with an agenda, we do not have to accept their world view as generally applicable to everyone in this country and it is not treason or unpatriotic to be a republican, suspicious of the police or queer.
Understand that terrorism has its flip side: freedom fighting. Nelson Mandela was a terrorist according to Thatcher. We talked to the IRA. Our history in Empire brought forth insurgencies, uprisings and terrorism. They are mostly settled now. History is written by the winners.
Don’t laugh at the seeming out of touch buffoon who abuses race, class or gender for public support of his political campaign. The buffoon may have powerful allies in the background.
If we don’t act and think critically, we are making it easier for a Strong Man to argue we should ‘take control’ and be ‘great again’ in order to lead us into the abyss.