By Eugène E.
A Swiss acquaintance of mine once complained to me that he found the Dutch to be, among other things, superficial and haughty. I took the observation no more seriously then than I do today: though very intelligent, the gentleman had a weakness for sweeping generalizations and airtight maxims. Yet reading To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism, written by the Dutch intellectual Rob Riemen, I had the mischievous thought that perhaps my Swiss acquaintance only had a certain type of Dutch intellectual in mind. If he in fact did, he couldn’t find a better example to buttress his case than this lightweight pamphlet of a book. Praised by such heavy guns as Amos Oz and Simon Schama on the back of the dust jacket, showered with accolades by reviewers, and invariably presented as “cogent” and “urgent”, this work comes pregnant with ambition. As it is, anyone expecting to soar to intellectual heights will find this intellectual journey quickly brought to a halt – the reader is more likely to run aground in some seriously shallow waters. If this is the best the Dutch intelligentsia can offer at the moment, the Netherlands is in trouble.
To Fight Against This Age contains two essays, one of which has strictly academic pretensions (“The Eternal Return of Fascism”), while the other (“The Return of Europa”), blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, is part allegory and part sermon, with shades of techno-skepticism à la John Gray’s Heresies. It is telling when a work on fascism, especially one that runs to more than 200 pages, fails to explain what, exactly, fascism is. One would assume that any discussion of a political concept would include a definition of the term discussed, if only to gauge the author’s definition against that of the reader’s, but presumably Riemen expects his readers to come to school prepared.
Failing to define fascism does not deter Riemen from using the term liberally to label those politicians whose politics he cannot accept – a most ultraliberal reflex. When you want to defeat a political opponent, there’s nothing like an ad hominem attack to besmirch his reputation. You’re against gay marriage? Well, then you’re a homophobe – and one does not debate things with homophobes. Rather flippantly, Riemen calls Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom, which opposes mass immigration into Holland (especially when it originates in the Islamic world), “prototypes of modern fascism”, which says little about either Wilders or his party, but a fair bit about Riemen’s own bias. Donald Trump would be called the same but, rather curiously, POTUS is not mentioned in the book by name, as if Riemen were afraid of evoking some dark force by dint of writing out the last name of the current US president.
Riemen professes to be sensitive to language and terminology, and accuses modern society of failing to call the reawakening of fascism in the West by its proper name, writing: “One variant of the phenomenon of denial is the idea that changing words will change facts”. Yet his own choice of terminology reveals a starkly cavalier attitude to the meaning of words. To call Wilders a prototype of modern fascism is to show a poor understanding of the concept of fascism. As Finchelstein explains in From Fascism to Populism in History, a far more nuanced study of the topic, fascism is carelessly – and mistakenly – conflated with populism. While populism appeared after World War II as a reformulation of fascism in a world where fascism had been discredited, it evolved and changed, pursuing its own destiny. Fascism is a political ideology that utilizes violence as an end and not as a means; where it succeeds, it obliterates democracy. Populism, on the other hand, does not uphold the primacy of violence and often manifests itself without resorting to it; if it comes to power, it can undermine democratic institutions, but does not destroy them completely. Can populism mutate into fascism? Absolutely. Equally, it might not, and Finchelstein provides multiple examples to back it up.
But Riemen does not appear to be interested in this level of detail. He does not explain what constitutes fascism, be it traditional fascism or its modern variant. A humanist intellectual in the European tradition, as he perceives himself, Riemen is more interested in identifying political enemies than in analyzing what they believe in and why. He belongs to the ultraliberal camp, which subscribes to the kind of ultraliberal openness that endorses mass immigration from other civilizations, irrespective of whether or not such immigration contributes to social cohesion. Wilders does not, and so Wilders is a prototype of modern fascism. It does not occur to Riemen that those who care about their civilizational identity and want to preserve it might be practicing a kind of humanism as well – no, if you do not think that allowing Muslim immigrants to enter a European country en masse is a good idea, you’re a fascist and need to be outed as such. Riemen condemns the spectre of fascism that he sees lurking about, oblivious to the fact that intellectuals of his ilk are partially responsible for its appearance: when they subject political opponents to ostracism, as they have been doing for years, they destroy the middle ground that lies between their views and those of the extremists’, making the land of classical liberals (or reactive liberals, as I prefer to call them) uninhabitable. By maligning those who question ultraliberal tenets, however reasonably, the bien-pensants and ultraliberals push moderate voices out of the arena and leave a vacuum that eventually becomes filled by the dreaded radical right.
The scale of Riemen’s partisanship can be seen in the beliefs he chooses to arrogate to the European humanist properly steeped in Judeo-Christian values. “The follower of one or all of these beliefs,” Riemen writes, “will adhere to the idea of the European spirit and will advance a political unification of Europe”. I suppose that anyone who belongs to European civilization will subscribe to the European spirit, although people seem to have held very different ideas of what this European spirit may be throughout history. But, while I strongly advocate the idea of a European Union (note the indefinite article), it is unclear to me why people who oppose the political integration of European countries should necessarily be barred from Riemen’s ashram of Judeo-Christian humanism. Has the acceptance of diverging political views gone out of fashion in the ultraliberal world?
Riemen’s humanist believes that “our true identity is determined not by nationality, origin, language, belief, income, race, or any way in which people differ from one another, but precisely by what unites us and makes the unity of mankind possible: universal spiritual values that shape human dignity and that every man can adopt”. This is precisely the kind of treacly verbiage deployed by ultraliberals that promises the Western world the best intentions and delivers the worst results: the destruction of a people’s traditions, sense of identity and belonging; the consequent shrinking of its population and reverse colonization by other civilizations; national enfeeblement and rootlessness; terrorist atrocities on a monthly or even weekly basis. It is the kind of message that sounds very good on paper, but leads to horror in real life.
Riemen talks about the necessity of using culture to inoculate society against fascism, but he equates culture with his own ultraliberal doctrine. The kind of universalism that Riemen advances actually dilutes culture. One of the great paradoxes of our society with its embrace of unfettered tolerance of all and everything is that it actually leads to less diversity. In the past, differences were emphasized. This often made the world a cruel place, sometimes abjectly so. It also made it more diverse. Today, when differences between genders and races are denied in the name of an artificial construct authored by political correctness, when biology and anatomy are suppressed in favour of ideology, when “diversity” is nothing but a carnivalesque term that, while claiming to celebrate the multitude of all sorts of different groups, actually subsumes them under a single soulless category known as “the consumer” – in this world where all differences are negated in the name of Riemen’s universalism, diversity is becoming a relic of the past. Ultraliberalism and globalization, after all, live in the same household.
According to Riemen, our identity is not determined by language, or origin, or any such thing. By what, then? What are these “universal spiritual values” that unite a Dutchman like Riemen and a tribesman from Papua New Guinea, since we now know that it’s not language, origin, or nationality? Riemen will be sure to find a universalist commonality, which will be absurd; but the mission of ultraliberalism, as I have repeatedly written, is to convince society that the absurd actually makes perfect sense and should be part of your reality.
Riemen writes: “The essence of Europe is therefore never politics, nor economics, nor technology, no, it’s culture. Nothing else.” That is true, but it’s hard to understand how European culture can be promoted with mass migration from civilizations that culturally have nothing to do with Europe. If Germany is going through a spiritual crisis, is welcoming more than a million migrants from the Middle East really the best way to tackle it? Riemen does not tell us. For him there are no problems with Islam in Europe. He asks: “Within the European Islamic community, is there a serious political movement that attempts to ‘Islamize’ Europe?”. And, sure enough, he has the answer: “No.” Really? Can a man be so oblivious to reality? The reader is made to understand that in Riemen’s Europe, mosques are not becoming more numerous. In Riemen’s Europe, Islamic garbs are not becoming more prominent in the streets of European cities. In Riemen’s Europe, there are no sharia police patrols such as the one that has been seen in Wuppertal. In Riemen’s Europe, national Muslim associations do not ask that unused churches be turned into mosques, as has been done in France. In Riemen’s Europe, there are no banlieues or Molenbeeks. In Riemen’s Europe, terrorist attacks committed by Islamist terrorists have no connection to the religion that seems to inspire them.
Talk about the Ostrich Syndrome.
If the first essay of the book is concerned with diagnostics, the second busies itself with the treatment. It’s the weaker of the two essays in this weakling of a book, which suffers from an overabundance of citations that seem to prop things up wherever Riemen’s own thoughts fail him, and from a profusion of all the right names (Thomas Mann, Kafka, Proust) that attempt to carve out a niche in the pantheon for Riemen’s own contribution to European thought. The solutions that Riemen has in mind are introduced by an ageing Mitteleuropean intellectual who may or may not be a figment of Riemen’s own imagination. He probably is a figment, since Riemen has the Prague native repeat a scene from Kafka’s Trial that Riemen mentions earlier himself, and since it takes a special kind of literary talent to turn a real-life intellectual into a caricature. For example, Riemen endows the man with an old-fashioned accent that is probably supposed to evoke the tapping of an elegant walking stick against the cobblestone streets of old Prague, or something along those lines, and he has him puff away on a cigar between his thoughtful disquisitions (something that rattles Riemen, who mildly castigates the older man). You get the idea.
The solution, according to Riemen’s alter ego and spokesman, is not that complicated. It’s all about cultivating one’s soul, finessing one’s sense of art, culture, and philosophy – well-intentioned ideas that represent a complete lack of understanding when it comes to human nature. The cultivation of one’s soul is rarely a top priority for most people – a fact of life that fascists, whose ghost all such exalted cultivation is supposed to drive away, appreciate much better than Riemen et al. A much more sensible approach to keeping fascism at bay is not to attempt to win the hearts and minds of people – an ultraliberal hobbyhorse – but to avoid creating situations that would be propitious to wide acceptance of fascist ideas. In this respect, ultraliberalism has failed dismally. Riemen’s “solution” reminds me of the poet Joseph Brodsky, who once said something to the effect that if he were president, he’d improve the state of affairs by ordering a nationwide bombardment – only instead of bombs, airplanes (or was it fighter jets?) would cover the benighted populace below with copies of Proust’s works. Yes, that would do it.
It’s not all ultraliberal bunkum. Riemen makes some good points. He is right to point out the main imperfection of the European Union, which in its present state is a socioeconomic juggernaut that has everything except the one thing that will give it the impetus that it needs to thrive – values, a spiritual centre that can exert a centripetal influence on all Europeans (his criticism of the symbolism implicit in the aesthetically ugly buildings housing the EU bureaucracy is poignant).
Riemen is also right to censure society’s fanatical embrace of materialism, which leaves an enormous spiritual and cultural void. What he neglects to add is that materialism is the gift of ultraliberalism, which, by championing radical openness, has succeeded in turning the developed world into a playground for transnational corporations. The satisfaction of one’s desires at the most primitive level as society’s creed is, in fact, a result of democracy. Democracy is the rule of the people, while culture (the kind of culture Riemen has in mind) is the preserve of the few. High culture is the domain of a minority group and, as such, is not particularly compatible with a democratic ethos. On the other hand, consumerism, as something that can appeal to vast swathes of people and transcend differences, thrives well in democratic societies, as we’ve seen. This is an uncomfortable truth that Riemen – and other ultraliberals – prefer not to explore.
It is indeed a paradox that haunts ultraliberal thought. To be sure, Riemen does differentiate between democracy and mass democracy. Yet he fails to explain how and why they differ, if they actually do differ. Riemen blames the return of fascism (or what he deems to be fascism) on mass democracy, omitting the fact that undesirable election results are inevitable in any society that considered the vote of a Nobel laureate (or, fine, of a Riemen) to be equal to the vote of a nineteen-year-old high school graduate who thinks that Americans speak American and confuses Napoleon Bonaparte with Napoleon Dynamite. Now that the spigots of the era of plenty seem to have been turned off, ultraliberals are forced to confront the reality that democracy comes with one not insignificant problem: election results might be at odds with their values, wishes, or plain common sense. Ultraliberals are still smarting from the victory of Trump and the triumph of the Leave camp in the Brexit referendum – two events that are nothing short of apocalyptic for the ultraliberal movement. In true democratic style, they’ve been trying to reverse both outcomes: rumblings concerning a second referendum on Brexit are constantly heard in the UK, while in the US, the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency is questioned on a daily basis (if it’s not the Russian connection, it’s some porn actress) and so ferociously that it’s truly remarkable that Trump still manages to perform his duties. The problem for ultraliberals is that, while they can challenge isolated events, they cannot challenge the entire paradigm, for that would require a major rethink of democracy as a concept – something that, for obvious reasons, would be very difficult for ultraliberals to do without renouncing their entire dogma. Perhaps even impossible.
As so often happens with ultraliberals, Riemen has the right diagnosis, but he is getting his prescriptions all mixed up. If Riemen were to have his way, the destiny of Europe would continue on its current trajectory. There would be more tolerance, more openness, and more universalism such that appeals to a Riemen – more ultraliberalism, in short. This age might be threatened by populism or even fascism, but the march of ultraliberalism in the West has mostly been, with some notable hiccups, thus far inexorable. In view of that, the title of Riemen’s book is something of a misnomer: Riemen is not fighting against this age, but against another age that might be engendered by the excesses of this one. As far as this age is concerned, Riemen should be reasonably content. And, given some of the existential problems that ultraliberalism has generated in modern society, Riemen’s more-of-the-same, politics-as-usual approach (for that is what it comes down to, when all is said and done) is not quite the cure that’s needed at the present time. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen and their parties might not be the solution. Neither is Rob Riemen – and To Fight Against This Age amply demonstrates that.
As for my Swiss acquaintance, I hope he won’t get his hands on a copy of this book. It won’t do the Dutch any good.