The Abyss of Modernity: Questioning Political Violence

NB: This paper is a draft of the introductory chapters of my study of political violence. The work was conceived as an examination of the interface between the history of violent conflict and the history of ideas and concepts such as the Absolute. A point of departure was the recognition of the stamina of conservative ideas, long derided as defunct by the forced optimism of progressive thought. This led to the recognition that resurgent conservatism functioned as an alternative critique of modernity (alternative that is, to the one advanced by the votaries of labour and the exponents of the "social question"). The argument that follows will, in due course, consider whether the annihilationist elements of modernity have taken structural form. This is another way of saying that we live - dangerously - in the midst of nihilism, a phenomenon that signals the destruction of both language and life - Dilip

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Occasional Paper 8, History & Society; 2013
Published by Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; Teen Murti House; New Delhi-110011
ISBN : 81-87614-48-X

Two chapters are presented here, named Parts 1 & 2. The sub-sections are as follows:

Part One: Modern Violence
1.1/ Violence and Modernity - 3
1.2/ Can Metaphysics be Overcome? - 7
1.3/ One Way Out: Dogmatic versus Agnostic Metaphysics - 14
1.4/ Dogma, Relativism and Emancipation - 15

Part Two: Nihilism and Modern Indifference
2.1/ Losing Eternity - 19
2.2/ Modern Pessimism -23
2.3/ Theodicy, Action & the Experience of Time - 26
2.4/ Summary Observations on Ideology - 29

Part One: Modern Violence

1.1/ Violence and Modernity

...what is granted under fear can be retained only as long as the fear lasts: M.K.Gandhi

There is nothing which so much resembles virtue as a great crime: 
St Just

The process of shift in meaning is never concluded, because, in history, it is never determined at the beginning what will result at the end: 
Karl Lowith

On the night of August 4, 1914 as his country declared war against Germany, Sir Edward Grey, Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary was reported to have remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” As we approach the centenary of the conflict that until 1939 was known simply as the Great War, we could say that he was speaking for an entire century and the entire planet. Depending on how the calculation is made, the twentieth century was witness to between 175 million to over 250 million unnatural deaths in the course of war, massacres, genocide and other politically inspired conflicts. The proportion of soldiers to civilians in the total number of those killed was roughly 43% in the Great War (1914-18), but down to 28% or less in the Second World War (1939-45). In time the distinction between combatants and non-combatants evaporated and belligerents began targeting civilian populations; evidenced by the large-scale terror-bombings and massacres committed by all sides in World War Two. For a brief duration in its aftermath, there existed a fond belief that a new era of peace was about to dawn. This was shattered by the Korean War and developments in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya and Vietnam. Thereafter the situation was summed up in a New York Times headline for September 1, 1972: US AIDES IN VIETNAM SEE AN UNENDING WAR. Debate still rages around the question of the relative increase or decline of violence in our time as compared to earlier epochs, some of it couched in statistical terms. Be that as it may, it seems fair to say that as regards physical vulnerability, war in its conventional or disaggregated form (as insurgent, drug-related, terrorist or anti-terror campaigns) has encircled the entire global population, a process exacerbated with the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the continuing crises in West Asia, Afghanistan, Africa and Latin America.

Is it possible to develop an understanding of political violence that goes beyond bland generalities? Is there a history of it that can tell us whether there is anything novel about modernity’s fascination with annihilation? Is capitalism the latest and deadliest embodiment of nihilism? Warfare and politically inspired violence have always been steeped in ethical concerns, whether theologically conceived or rooted in political messianism, so it would not be out of place to question the normative involvements of historiography. What is the source of the belief that what is virtuous is sharply to be distinguished from what is useful; that the former is the concern of religion, and the latter the concern of mathematical reasoning and science? That the concept of reason must be detached from the concept of goodness, that reason by its very nature is ethically silent? Do we agree with Collingwood that ‘true history must be absolutely passionless, absolutely devoid of all judgements of value, of whatever kind’? Or with the belief that history is the story of progress and reconciliation, that ‘the wounds of the Spirit leave no scars’, as Hegel put it? There is indeed a major domain of thought wherein self-styled rational speech about the good does take place: the teleologically inspired accounts of History with a capital H. Upon closer examination these narratives, sometimes named historicism, amount to secular versions of theodicy – God’s plan to produce Good out of evil. However, these narratives have become difficult to sustain after the macabre and bloody events of the twentieth century.

Nonetheless, we remain creatures of history, tied to our pasts despite the evanescent and spectacular quality of modern time. So the question remains: apart from collation, considered description and analysis, does history perform an ethical function? We may not prescribe for past generations, but is there a historical lesson in the unease that has always surrounded systematised murder? Does the contemporary unease and anomie signify humanity's confrontation with a far more grievous choice than the production of justifications for the next war? In my view, that is precisely what it signifies. I will argue that the threads of thought and of conscience are woven together, although we might not always know it; or even when, as in the political ideas of Descartes and Machiavelli and Hobbes, a conscious effort is made to separate them. In my view, the ever-present human tendency towards nihilism (by which I refer to the loss of meaning, ethical vacuity and the belief in the worthlessness or nullity of standards of conduct) has attained structural form under capitalist modernity. The term Enemy System is an apt description of a global polity that is quintessentially nihilist. Reason has been constrained to the service of capitalist accumulation (Growth) and its eternal war-machine; it is “reason under house-arrest”, to use Fuller’s striking phrase. Howsoever sceptically we might view the notion of karma as it applies to human individuals, the past deeds of humanity have had a cumulative impact upon the lived present, and confirm the objectivity of what has been named time’s arrow.

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, whom his Greek contemporaries named The Dark One, considered war “the father of all things” and believed that if strife perished, all things would pass away. In more than 2500 years since he delivered himself of this wisdom, the cycle of war’s creativity is pushing humanity toward social disintegration and annihilation. If the established order of the world remains steeped in war and the cult of martyrdom, it will continue to engender forms of totalitarianism, along with its inevitable corollary, planetary chaos. If discourses of liberty persist in glorifying the ideal of “people’s war”, the ongoing osmosis of left and right will continue, as shall the militarisation of society as a whole.

There is another point of entry into this vexed issue. The history of the state, its relation to the evolution of warfare, has generated a semi-autonomous zone in polities through the ages, the place occupied by armies, human killing machines. In an insight that he (regrettably) did not pursue, Marx gave war a determining place in the evolution of modernity... Download the paper:

See also:

Stanley Rosen - a great philosopher passes

Closing the Circle: article on Revolution in Frontier

Paul Fussell, ex-soldier, literary Scholar & critic

The End of the new world order

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