Ironic Reversal is the Real “End of History”
“Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on, there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
What Nietzsche is describing in this passage excerpted from Twilight of the Idols is the process of ironic reversal. We have also called this process enantiodromia, after the usage of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who coined the term under the influence of the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraklitus, “the Weeping Philosopher” famous for his paradoxes. Enantiodromia is the process by which things or actions revert and turn into their polar opposites. The action of ironic reversal is also the issue of the nihilism of our times. “All higher values devalue themselves” — Nietzsche’s succinct formula for nihilism — contains the whole issue of ironic reversal. And ironic reversal is the theme of this post.
The first thing we must highlight about Nietzsche’s quoted statement about the self-negation of liberal institutions (which necessarily includes liberal democracy) is that it contains a sloppy contradiction. Liberal institutions which cease to be liberal as soon as they are victorious must clearly and necessarily cease to be “liberal institutions” at all, or merely remain “liberal” in name only. They become, in effect, reactionary formations — an outcome noted in our time in the phrase “illiberal liberalism” to describe the orientation and attitude of the unlikely troika of neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism, and neo-socialism under the influence of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA principle (“There is No Alternative”), Reaganomics, and Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of political choice in his naive and triumphalist The End of History and the Last Man.
In effect, what the consensus attested to was the triumph of economics over politics (called “economism“) and of the free market over democracy (if not civilisation). Ironically, and though it may seem counter-intuitive, neo-liberalism was the illiberal element that has resulted in the negation of liberal institutions themselves, and with that the final degeneration and demise of the Modern Era. This process of ironic reversal needs to be followed for what it can teach us, too, about the karmic law.
Market liberalisation — deregulation and privatisation — during the last few two or three decades has tended towards laissez-faire economics — that is, economics of the Robinson Crusoe variety. Only with the 2008 market meltdown did it come to be appreciated how market “players”, given run of the playground without adult supervision, could endanger all of society. Nor are we at all through with facing the continued menacing consequences of this bad judgement for one simple reason: the freer the market becomes, the more it comes to resemble the state of Nature itself and not of a human and humane institution or society. It tends towards the inhuman.
This is what the historian Jean Gebser attempted to emphasise in his book The Ever-Present Origin, when he warned in the first chapter called “Fundamental Considerations” that,
“The current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an equally extreme collectivism that promises the total fulfillment of man’s being. In the latter instance we find the utter abnegation of the individual valued merely as an object in the human aggregate; in the former a hyper-valuation of the individual who, despite his limitations, is permitted everything…. When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving center are finaly severed. It would seem that today the connections are already broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient.” (p. 3)
This is the essence of the ironic reversal, then. The Modern Era, which began as the project to domesticate Nature — to escape the state of Nature — ends by becoming thoroughly dominated by it once more as law of the jungle. The famous “invisible hand” behind the market mechanism was always only Nature itself. And Nature does not know anything about issues like justice, ethics, or freedom. (Correspondingly, neither does the dominant contemporary technocratic economics). The more the so-called “free market” comes to resemble the state of Nature, the less it resembles a functioning part of a human and humane civilisation.
Our civilisation, like the Mayan civilisation, is being re-invaded by Nature. Even society has become the image on earth of the merciless and inexorable cold Cosmic Clockwork envisioned by the classical physicists, so poignantly represented in the famous woodcut Urbi et Orbi,
Our re-invasion by Nature and the law of the earth is what our solar calendar of interest rate calculation and the condition of laissez-faire market economics has effectively brought about, and this is also not unconnected with the narcissism epidemic either, for the “culture of narcissism” in our time is a survivalist response to these conditions that has now become a social pathology, the most visible expression of which is predation and “predatory capitalism”. The greatest ironic reversal of all lies in this fact that the famous assumption of the alleged “rational pursuit of self-interest” that animates the free market has become, instead, a collective irrational pursuit of self-destruction — civilisational nihilism as self-negation.
Unless, that is, we find a way to transcend this menacing state of affairs.
In past posts, we highlighted another case of ironic reversal that is instructive for our own. The early High Middle Ages begins with the image of Parsifal, the fool who becomes a Grail Knight. That age ended with the image of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the knight who becomes a fool once more. Our age, the Modern Era, begins with the bold project to conquer space and turn Nature to human account, and it ends with our being ourselves subjugated to the Great Cosmic Clockwork and the law of the jungle, also called “rat race” and “war of all against all”.
For other cases of such ironic reversal in history, listen to Ronald Wright’s Massey Lectures posted on the CBC Ideas website in audio format (also published in book form as A Short History of Progress).
For a discussion of how the astronomical calendar has re-invaded and has come to dominate social life, see Chapter II, “The Unformity of Man” from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s The Multiformity of Man, available online at Argo Books.
Although lacking in some important respects, The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell provides some degree of insight into the problem of narcissism in our time. Unfortunately, it starts from a faulty premiss about narcissism that tends to obscure the issue as much as it enlightens. Also available for download.