Warfare in the Age of The Worker
The Logic of Modern War in Ernst Jünger’s On Pain
The Trench by Otto Dix, 1923
On the desolate streets of Mosul, a KIA compact SUV rounds a corner, barrels towards an intersection, and seconds later detonates amongst a group of Iraqi soldiers. Dust fills the streets and windows shatter blocks away, with nothing left of this vehicle-borne IED but twisted metal. This scene will repeat itself in hundreds of iterations throughout the grinding Siege of Mosul.
For years the Islamic State has used this tactic—vehicle-borne IEDs as a makeshift form of an airstrike. But instead of a GPS guiding a munition to a laser-designated target, a man steers his weapon to its target. Car bomb factories across Iraq turned out these vehicles on an industrial scale for years, with thousands of men eagerly manning them to their inevitable deaths.
Anyone familiar with the propaganda of the Islamic State will instantly recognize their oft-repeated exhortation: “We love death as you love life”. Far removed from our own sensibilities of humanism and respect for the sanctity of the individual, their message caused a generation of men to leave behind their lives in Western democratic nations.
Those that did not die on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria now wither in prisons across northern Syria, awaiting repatriation home to answer for their atrocities. These same men in years prior came from middle-class backgrounds, had friends, went to college, and experienced love, like millions of others around them. Who are these men, and how did they come to be?
Similar scenes once played out across the testing grounds of the Japanese Navy nearly 100 years ago. Prior to the Second World War, Japanese admirals oversaw experiments where men were locked inside of torpedoes and were, “...regarded as a technical component of the torpedo as well as its actual intelligence.”. Sealed inside these tubes, a class of men more comparable to gears in a complex assembly driven by a pure process of industrial technique first emerged.
It’s here, in the convulsions of the interwar years of Europe, that I’ve turned to find help in trying to understand how someone is capable of such acts.
Ernst Jünger writing On Pain in 1934 describes a new figure that has emerged on the world-historical stage, the figure of The Worker, and with him an embrace of pain. He proclaims, “Tell me your relation to pain, and I will tell you who you are!” Abandoning comfort, and no longer interested in humanism or individualism, he brings with him a new age that promises destruction never before seen in human life. Pain becomes the central feature of this new epoch, upon which all social life will become organized.
For Marx, it was the relationship of ownership of production that was to be studied if one wished to understand political change. With Jünger, it is now the relationship to pain. Jünger traces the outline of an arc of history moving from pre-modernity to the epoch of The Last Man that emerges from enlightenment society, and finally to the era of The Worker. The movement from The Last Man to The Worker, in particular, is heavily influenced by a set of internal contradictions involving his relation to pain that inevitably must resolve themselves.
It is first our new relation to pain in the time of the Last Man that ought to be examined if we wish to understand this transformation. Pain is, “...life’s inescapable shadow or a gristmill grinding the grain ever finder and with more incisive rotations.” This pain, it should be noted, has two facets: one is physical pain, and the other is the existential pain of inevitable death.
The physical component of this pain is heavily mediated by the growth of mass industrial society and the technology which grows from it. Mundane, almost imperceptible shifts in technology habituate our character through our general relations with the world around us. Jünger, in his commentary on the nature of a suicide bomber, puts forth what I feel is his primary thesis on technology. His claim is that it has a logic of its own, which as it grows only serves to transform man into an automaton,
“The idea behind this peculiar organic construction [The Japanese torpedo] drives the logic of the technical world a small step forward by transforming man in an unprecedented way into one of its component parts…one soon realizes that it is no longer considered a curiosity once achieved on a larger social scale, i.e., when one disposes over a breed of resolute men obedient to authority.”
To understand The Worker, it is necessary to understand the contradictions he faces in his relationship to pain. If technology has its own logic that we conform ourselves to, we may be able to more easily see what occurs in this transformation from Last Man to The Worker. For Jünger, there seems to be a certain teleology produced by this pain. The Worker is simply the necessary outcome of these primordial forces of pain. It is not a prescription of what ought to be, but merely a description of what he is becoming. If we dig into how this technological process works, it is clear that the suicide bombers employed by the Japanese Navy and the Islamic State have the same fundamental roots.
We ought to look here at specific pieces of technology in an attempt to garner a more general appreciation of this process.
Take, for instance, what Jünger says about how German society has dealt with the advent of cars. “Traffic victims are given year in and year out; they’ve reached a number surpassing losses resulting from bloody wars. We accept these victims as a foregone conclusion…” We, for the most part, view this as a mere fact of life, something that occurs outside of our own control, an almost trivial detail to be pointed out. But consider how our acceptance of tens of thousands of deaths every year may affect our relationship to and tolerance of pain. The technology itself is not what is questioned—nobody would ever suggest eliminating cars—but rather its consequences. We numb ourselves to this development. Our use of cars is merely one symptom of our almost enthusiastic embrace of bending ourselves to the whims of technology.
Not only this, but our social customs shift as well. We accept tens of thousands of deaths annually, but, “A hundred years ago it was normal for a young man to die in a duel; today, such a death would be a curiosity.” This seems absurd to us, as of course, it would be preposterous for someone to engage in a duel; such a thing would be worthy of national news. However, it is worth asking here what, exactly, it is that offends our sensibilities to such an extent. Surely it cannot be death and suffering, as“Pedestrians are not only required to conform to traffic laws but are also answerable for infractions against them…” We have no issue with inflicting death and suffering, we only require that the pain is of an industrial-technological type. The pain need only to, “...conform to our type, i.e., to the worker-type…”
The logical flow of technology is also reflected in Jünger in photography, “The photograph stands outside of the zone of sensitivity. It has a telescopic quality; one can tell that the event photographed is seen by an insensitive and invulnerable eye. It records the bullet in mid-flight just as easily as it captures a man at the moment an explosion tears him apart.” Photography here serves to encapsulate what happens more broadly in industrial-technological society. It lacks any care for what it captures, and it is precise and objective. There is no room for an ambiguous humanistic element. What appears and is captured by a camera is an absolute representation of an object.
Of great import here as well is that the camera serves to eliminate any last vestiges of the mythical and romantic in the world. Being of the age of pure technology, it captures and quantifies anything that may once have been able to shroud itself in emotion, for, “The moment a city like Mecca can be photographed, it falls into the colonial sphere.” It is not merely that technology in this sense is cold and objective, but that it takes and captures the world into itself, in a relentless march of turning everything into its own image. There is no space in this for an irrational attachment to something like religion, or a sacred site. Life is reduced to pure materialism; the ability to be a true believer vanishes before this assault.
This, however, is not sufficient to explain why The Worker brings with him such horrors into the world; there is an internal component to his nature that must be addressed. It seems absurd to posit that something like the existence of the car contains within it the inevitable seeds of the car bomber. The man that operates this vehicle must feel as though he is accomplishing something with this act that was denied to him through any other avenue. There must be something missing in the inner life of the Last Man that begets such a form of nihilism that we eventually find in The Worker.
So how does this internal contradiction manifest in the psyche of someone who means to live in a manner that ranks security as the highest of all priorities? Material comfort is widespread, social stability emerges, and “....the capacity for pleasure has been retained whilst its inhibitions have been brushed aside.” The figure of the bourgeois age is one of a hedonist, who for lack of higher meaning in life only seeks to expand to all spheres in which he can attain pleasure.
This is not to say that the advances of this era are something to be scorned, however, “...the abolition of torture and the slave trade, the discovery of electricity, vaccination against measles…We still appreciate all these celebrated dates of progress, and wherever one, let’s say, mocks them, it is due to romantic dandyism…” The Enlightenment has brought admirable and meaningful improvements to the human condition, and only contrarians would actually deny this as a fact. There is no good reason to suspect that these are in themselves a cause of what has gone wrong in the Weimar Republic, nor is there a reason to spurn the great advances of the 19th century. The trouble is that the problems in human affairs run much deeper than having electricity at night.
Security seems to be insufficient to provide meaning in people’s lives. Despite our best efforts, pain intrudes on our existence. Boredom takes on the form of pain for this “Last Man”. In finding a way out of physical danger,
“...even the individual is not fully free from pain in this joyful state of security. The artificial check on the elementary forces might be able to prevent violent clashes and to ward off shadows, but it cannot stop the dispersed light with which pain permeates life. The vessel, sealed off from pain’s full flow, is filled drop by drop. Boredom is nothing other than the dissolution of pain in time.”
The description of the intolerable boredom of security seems to invoke the poetry of Baudelaire, primarily concerned with the state of one’s own impending death and the feeble attempts to impose distractions on oneself to avoid the inevitable. Attempting over and over to throw oneself into pleasures with no end against the constantly approaching inevitable is the character of this man. The poem Une Charogne comes to mind in particular, revealing the incongruity of this lifestyle. No matter which way one wishes to twist and turn, to attempt to throw off its pursuit, death ends up blocking our paths. Death, like the corpse of this poem, cares not for our desire for a walk through a forest path on a sunny day, it must always be reckoned with.
In this sense, the “pain” which is being avoided isn’t purely physical pain—although that is an aspect—it is the denial that one must die. When we embrace an absolute rejection that death comes to us, “...we already begin to reel when a joyful, wealthy, or powerful man is stricken by the most ordinary afflictions…The seeds of destruction are indifferent to whether they destroy the mind of a numskull or a genius.” The avoidance of pain in its literal sense is one of the primary organizing principles of this form of politics, and society writ large. There is a sense that progress can keep at bay the inevitabilities that lurk in a shadow behind life. The problem here, of course, is that it is absurd for a society or epoch to be built around the avoidance of such an absolute. Pain and death do not care about the values we wish to impose on society.
One gets a sense too of the malaise and atomization that must be engendered by this form of life, with the situation of the Last Men being likened to, “...wanderers traipsing along endlessly over a frozen sea, whose surface begins to break up into great sheets of ice due to a change in climate…the depth of the substance, which was always present shines dimly through the cracks and crevice.” The idea of the product of bourgeois society being these men who wander lost across a desolate empty landscape seems to express this sense of detachment. Lost, and with no real beliefs left, it is only in the completion of their epoch that from beneath this artificial layer of enlightenment society pain seeps back through the cracks of the melting ice.
The list Jünger provides of the benefits brought from enlightenment society is immediately contrasted with what is actually playing out across the streets of Europe,
“These years display a strange mix of barbarity and humanity; they resemble an archipelago where an isle of vegetarians exists right next to an island of cannibals. And extreme pacifism side by side with an enormous intensification of war preparations, luxurious prisons next to squalid quarters for the unemployed, the abolition of capital punishment by day whilst the Whites and the Reds cut each other’s throats by night—all this is thoroughly fairytale-like and reflects a sordid world in which the semblance of security is preserved in a string of hotel foyers.”
The aftermath of the turmoil of the Great War shatters this illusion more broadly. The whole of Europe hangs precipitously on the edge of famine, wars over territory spread across the continent, and millions are living in poverty amongst the teetering ruins of formerly great states. Like the corpse blocking the path during a stroll through the woods, pain and death spring forth among even the highest symbols of the enlightenment. The security that is promised even in Paris is revealed to be an illusion: the great promise that bourgeois society brings only matters to those that have the money to stay in the grand hotels.
The brutal interwar politics of Paris provide a microcosm for this phenomenon, as Stalin’s NKVD hunted down and assassinated White émigrés, with the bodies of former members of the anti-Bolshevik forces turning up in the Seine next to coffee shops. The cloak and dagger campaign waged relentlessly on the streets of Paris reflects a real-world manifestation of pain lurking constantly in the shadows.
The deaths of the émigrés are archetypal of the anonymous character of death in this era: without acknowledgment and without meaning. This denial of recognition closes off any ability to attain the romantic nobility of character that seemed possible prior to modernity, forgotten beneath the veneer of security that this enlightenment society has convinced itself of. All that remains are those who are endlessly subjected to an anonymous zone of dull and unending pain. This is the primary element that I think has been lost in Jünger’s conception of what causes such an intense lack of existential meaning for the Last Man: because we are atomized individuals, we lack the means to integrate our experience of this pain. The core of this account of pain suggests to me that there is no actual level of material comfort that can work to restore a sense of purpose in our lives.
To return to Jünger’s earlier example of the destruction of the mystical aura of Mecca, industrial modernity functions more broadly to ceaselessly destroy our romantic conceptions of the world. Romantic here is in the sense that there is a non-rational component to life. The destruction of religious life depicted by the camera’s ability to render Mecca as a colonial possession can be understood to represent the incompatibility of genuine religious faith in the industrial-technological era. The myth and superstition that would once keep us in awe at the natural world are closed off to us, and our primary means of interaction with the world are based on the quantification and objective control of our surroundings. What room could possibly be found in such a world to give hope for something such as a personal relationship with God—or even each other?
To a political philosopher such as Marx, the alienation engendered by industrial life can be remedied only through materialistic means. His vision, portrayed in The German Ideology, is an idyllic existence in which one fishes in the morning and criticizes after dinner. This is where I find Jünger’s issue with materialism most convincing. For a figure like Marx or other materialists, there is still no reckoning with this form of existential pain. Technological-industrial life robs us of the ability to have transcendent conceptualizations of the nature of life, with or without a classless society. Marx of course is an explicitly atheist author, and assigns these concerns to mere materialism, believing the inability of the proletariat to lead meaningful lives to be an outgrowth of the capitalist mode of production.
How does one properly integrate their own death into a vision such as this? It seems unconvincing to me that the ennui encompassed in the writing of someone like Baudelaire vanishes merely because my material station in life has changed. I am still forced to reckon with my death even if I own the means of production, and I fail to see how more just working conditions would allow me to recover a world of myth and transcendent meaning. Take for instance the camera. In either instance, it serves to rationalize the world and rob it of its inherent meaning. Regardless of the material organization of production, technology will engender this objectification and coldness toward our surroundings.
There is also no way in the purely materialistic account of man wherein he is able to recover some sense that he is an active participant in the world and his political community merely because his direct conditions improved. Where and how would I derive the ability to achieve or strive to accomplish great feats by fishing in the morning?
A figure like Achilles cannot be found, or even conceptualized in this framework since the manner of relation to one’s community precludes his possibility of existence. The choice that Achilles makes—that he will die on the plains of Troy but his name will live forever—is not feasible when the denial of death as a fundamental aspect of life takes on such prominence.
The individual in an age of a heroic worldview feels as though his actions take on actual importance in the course of world history. He is not a faceless member of mass society huddled beneath great monuments, but a member of a political community in which the choices that he makes take on genuine significance for what transpires around him. It brings to mind the difference wherein Homer takes great care to list the homes and families of the multitudes that die over the course of The Iliad against the unknown soldier of the First World War. Despite falling outside Troy, their deaths aren’t rendered as mere inconsequential statistics but are integrated into the full essence of human life as being the culmination of their character. The unknown soldier as a microcosm of mass society instead is rendered as nothing more than an industrial component to be replaced, his death has no more meaning than an expenditure of artillery rounds—merely a technical problem that a logistics officer must quickly remedy by replenishment from the rear.
In these deaths, there’s also an existential loss of dignity. Those dying in the squalid camps of the homeless beneath the great landmarks of Parisian culture are not only confronting physical suffering and pain, but a pain of a heroic or meaningful death denied to them. They’re denied any sort of recognition, any ability to attain what could be considered a romantic nobility of character that seemed possible prior to modernity. This is to say that being able to attain or strive for a form of heroism engenders an implicit recognition that the individual has achieved and done something worthwhile. The recognition of their political community gives them a status that indicates that they have done something which took genuine struggle and sacrifice. To be condemned to death as a mere member of a crowd is to be denied that one was even here at all. To return to the example of Achilles, the inability for him to exist is a more general example of the station of the Last Man, as he is denied in every manner the death or heroic feats of such a man. For those in mass society, all are condemned to a death akin to a member of a crowd.
Jünger looks to the lumpenproletariat that is shuffled off to the side streets as the emerging signs of this phenomenon. While he makes a point that he isn’t using this term in the style of “class conflict,” he still wants to make clear that they are, “...an elementary force, which is always present and naturally consoles itself behind the mask of established economic thought.” They are the most forgotten and unrecognized of this form of society, and as such, they serve the role of presaging the rise of The Worker. Like a seismograph, they detect the tremors of this oncoming age as they’ve already been forced into an immediate relation to pain that removes from them the bounds of morals and the melting away of social classes and orders. For the lumpenproletariat, such distinctions lack any proper meaning, and the relation to pain is all that is left.
From this, the figure of The Worker emerges. It is a typology of an entirely new man, emerging from a teleology that Jünger sees in a liberal society. Such a man is an empty vessel, robbed of meaning in his life, and sent adrift when the promises of security turn hollow. The long fomenting processes of history become ready to give him his new shape and form. Unmoored from his previous self, the Last Man’s end is heralded as, “...the sum of pain that remains unclaimed and amasses as hidden capital occurring compound interest.” The pain he has suppressed emerges with force as a mirror image of these vast industrial and technological processes.
If we take seriously that he has been emptied out of his previous forms of tradition and meaning, we must examine how technology now shapes and forms him. Who does he now become when he is being steered along by these mechanistic tracks?
Society emerges as a vast factory, buzzing to life on the backs of men closer to automatons than they are to individuals. In the turbulence of the Great War and the shattering of security in its aftermath, the new figure of The Worker strides forth on the world-historical stage. Robbed of traditional forms of meaning, and denied access to the ideals of heroism, he takes on the role of the factory worker, with his value reliant upon his ability to tolerate pain.
Our inquiry should begin here, from the level of the individual, to understand the shape that the politics of this era take. The Worker is torn apart by the demands of pain, “...one might say that the most salient features lie in its [The Worker’s] possession of a ‘second’ consciousness…the second consciousness is focused on the person standing outside the zone of pain.” The cold, uncaring nature of technological-industrial life forces The Worker to see himself as an object.
Returning to the camera serves well to illustrate this phenomenon, as it becomes a metaphorical “...weapon of the worker-type…” The second consciousness of The Worker functions in essentially the same manner as the camera. In Jünger’s estimation, The Worker attains a certain form of distance from his own body akin to a, “...a command center, which regards the body as a distant outpost that can be deployed and sacrificed in battle.” With cold and distant regard engendered by technology, The Worker regards his own body as an object, something to which he feels no actual attachment. In the same manner that the camera has no regard for what it captures, the body is a mere thing that is only manipulated by a secondary actor whose entire relationship with the outside world is dead to emotion.
This objectification of oneself follows the same logic that Jünger identifies as belonging to technology. The more the self is reduced to an object of the secondary consciousness, the more pain that one is able to endure. The more the body becomes regarded as an object, the more this abstraction of self pushes itself to higher and higher heights.
This seems to manifest itself in yet another seemingly mundane aspect of life—the professional athlete. For the individual, the mark of technology makes itself clear when, “The strange desire to document a record down to the smallest spatial and temporal numerical unit comes from a need to know precisely what the human body, as an instrument, is capable of achieving.” Change and development again mimic technological processes. The body is seen as a mere machine, a thing that can be measured and controlled like the production line of a factory.
Athletes take on the role of a specialized form of technical laborer, but instead of an ever-increasing efficiency in the creation of consumer goods, they function to stress the human body to its own highest threshold of performance. They remove themselves totally from any zone of sensitivity in their pursuit of attaining ever more challenging records, imbued with a form of determination that only occurs when one is able to completely detach the notion of pain from the body. He asks us to consider the case, “...ski jumpers head down the ski ramp one after the other or race drivers flying by like arrows with helmet and uniforms, the impression one has hardly differs from seeing a specially built machine.” In seeking out these precise and mechanical records each and every contortion of the human body becomes more and more mechanical in pursuit of greater and greater efficiency. Thanks to the endlessly increasing proficiency in the ability to measure to the exact records in sports, each shift of the body, every slight movement down to the most minute aspect is controlled to attain the greatest possible advantage. It’s here, in the molding of himself to the demands of technology, that the professional athlete embodies in the highest sense what The Worker truly is.
It may also be important to take note that education plays for this individual. The liberal arts no longer serve any purpose as far as industrialization is concerned, and free inquiry slowly vanishes alongside it. The logic of industrialization is to increase specialization, and as such has no need for humanities to sustain itself so that, “...we can predict with some certainty that education will become more limited and more focused, as can be observed wherever the training of man as a type rather than as an individual takes precedence.” For many in this new epoch, their access to and understanding of the world is socialized into them from the beginning of their lives. Their perspective and their ability to comprehend this technology are shaped and fixed by the changing nature of education. Here again, we find an expression of how our social systems shape themselves to the demands of technology. A broad and serious study of the humanities with a tradition dating back centuries quickly yields to an assault by the requirements of the logic of industrial society and instead fragments itself to produce highly specialized technicians.
Jünger also states here that, “...in many countries, certain fields of study are now closed off to the younger generations from social strata assigned a lower level of reliability…[this is] also indicative of a determination to cut off education right from the start to specific social classes…” In an even more bleak and hopeless assessment, he proposes that while there may be some left who remember the ideals of the previous epoch that can resist these changes, those born into modernity are given their marching orders from birth. The needs and demands of this society care not for the passion and enrichment of individuals, but like a conveyor belt, the individual is carried along from their birth to their death not even knowing what they have lost.
Even the shape and features of this machinelike man are transformed, created, and forged from the physically demanding life of endless labor, “One immediately notices by every kind of rigorous training how the imposition of the firm and impersonal rules and regulations is reflected in the hardening of the face.” The soldier, the man in the factory, and the athlete all blend together in one similar style. Their vocations may be different, but the vast homogenizing nature of technological liberal bourgeois society has similar rules for all, making faces that appear as cool and emotionless as the machines they manipulate. The ruthless march of these forces is to the extent that the sexes lose all distinction and, “...they evoke a curious impression that the discovery of the worker is accompanied by the discovery of a third sex.”
There is a certain form of perfectibility to be found across all these forms of adaptation to technology. The Worker, as far as I can see, has no moral element that drives him to certain ends, but merely an ever-inescapable ideal of instrumentality which he is working towards from the logic inherent in his technology. I find the example of the professional athlete to be a useful example of this process. There is a teleology without end inherent in this process: because records are continually surpassed, there is no final end towards which he strives. This seems just as applicable to the athlete as it is to the scientist, who is born of the increasingly specialized educational system. He simply works towards ever greater perfection in his discipline with no anchor in a more holistic view of life.
The Worker is the sort of man that merely asks how but does not consider the effects of his creations. It brings to my mind the quote of Wernher Von Braun, “Science does not have a moral dimension. It is like a knife. If you give it to a surgeon or a murderer, each will use it differently.” It simply does not occur to them that their pursuit may unleash horrors upon the world. He is a man that only understands instrumentality, the application of growing specialization in the continued advance of industrial life.
Something of importance to note here as well is that this is largely not a conscious process. The individual of bourgeois society that transforms into this automaton is not actively willing to become a cold unfeeling machine-like Worker. It’s not evident from the outset that technology results in such an outcome. This is a process that occurs in the shadows, each interaction slowly changing and hardening the individual into something new. Very few people are the kind of sociopaths who would embrace such a view of human life as to want to totally distance themselves from anything approximating joy or happiness. The more terrifying aspect of this transformation is that it seems fundamentally impossible to recognize from any one single manifestation. It is the small, incisive grinding over years or even generations of boredom and technological life that creates such a dreadful impact.
It should not be lost that at an individual level, this is imperceptible, but perhaps not entirely deterministic. To bring back to mind the example of the acceptance of traffic accidents and the derision of the duel, our reaction, and acceptance of the changes in social norms are of our own volition. Technology is adopted, and we mold ourselves to its demands, but this should not be confused with determinism per se. The operative function of this mutually reinforcing cycle is our acceptance of the logic of technology as the fundamental framework on which to base our lives around. For the individual, it of course strikes us as completely reasonable that we ought to accept each and every incremental technological change and shift our social life around it.
Take, for instance, the example of photography. We accept in small increments the camera and its function, because why would we not want to have a photo of ourselves and our families? This strikes us as eminently reasonable, but we do not consider the minute changes this carries alongside it. Almost none of us thinks through that this change also brings with it, “The practice of placing photographs of people murdered in political clashes on posters…” Nor do we recognize the consequences of adopting the car into our lives. At the level of the individual, we merely see the convenience of making our commutes easier or visiting distant relatives. Forgotten in this, of course, is the immense suffering from the tens of thousands of accidents that this also entails.
It’s this constant eating away of one’s sense of self that Jünger terms assaults on “zones of sensitivity”. The zones of sensitivity lie where people are able to have a sense of individuality and their own humanity. Each technological advance and each new industrial technique only serve to break this down further. To think of the nature of how these small changes serve to produce a form of a new man, think of the pain as washing against a rock, slowly ripping away at its foundation.
The seeming invisibility of this process at the level of the individual is of great importance in trying to capture the fundamental issues with attempting to understand how something like the transition from the Weimar Republic to Nazi Germany could have happened. It is hard to believe that people wake up one day and decide to embrace a radical ideology and spread death across a continent. These changes were the result of day after day of making small decisions, and a gradual hollowing of humanism and self.
The shape of this political community is almost a foregone conclusion from the nature of the individual Worker. Here the teleology present in technological forces again emerges, and if followed to completion results in a form of totalitarianism never before seen in political life. Accepting the premise that The Worker, by his creation of a second consciousness that makes his own body an object to himself, is shaped and molded to technology, the political society itself will follow this same model.
While we may despair in trying to understand this on the individual level due to the diminutive changes that produce such an effect, “If one enlarges upon this thought, one soon realizes that it is no longer considered a curiosity once achieved on a larger social scale, i.e., when one disposes over a breed of resolute men obedient to authority.” It is only in taking account of the whole of society, and the way that it has configured itself, that one can actually appreciate what these minute shifts and changes have produced in the aggregate.
An apt analogy for this may be found in the relationship between a part of a factory and its whole. While looking at a specific machining tool in an assembly line would tell us nothing of its final ends, a glimpse of the whole reveals that each and every part is being driven forward unquestioningly by the absolutely authoritarian logic of what the factory must create. Thomas Hobbes conceived of the state as though it were an artificial body, but in this new industrial age, it takes the form of a tireless manufactory. The Worker is thrust into this state as little more than a gear, moving only at the commands of society he has obliterated his sense of self into.
This is what Jünger calls the total state that, “...presupposes the existence of at least one single total human being, and the purely moral will begets in the best case a total bureaucracy.” The form and style of politics are by nature authoritarian and mass. There is no other way it can be: The Worker must take on this type of state as a form. The best that we may hope for is that it has some sense of morality and takes on the shape of a mass bureaucracy.
This total state is the final political configuration of the objectification of the self and its relation to pain, the complete subjugation of the individual to the will of the whole which results in “a breed of men that can be sent off to war as cannon fodder…the most dreadful symbol of the right to sovereign rule imaginable” This total state is distinguished as well in its absolute lack of a moral character. Created from men turned who resemble cold automatons, its only expression is that of power, a political community whose organizing principle is nihilism.
At this stage, the individual is truly gone. Nothing remains of his previous nature, and with the rise of the total state comes the rise of mass politics. In the same manner that the individual Worker develops a second consciousness, the total state serves as the second consciousness of the mass body politic. The “command center” that is able to perceive the body as an object able to withstand any demand of pain now finds its location in the authoritarian rule of this new political community. The masses only exist insofar as they serve to suffer and endure pain on behalf of their polity.
War and the military take on a special place in this new total state. It’s here that the complete embrace of authority and pain finds their home. It is a new and terrifying nihilism of the highest form, as, everything else is torn away, the logic of this new society finds its culmination in the mechanistic formations seen in grand armies.
The battlegrounds of the First World War were merely glimpses of what technology would ultimately produce. A war of material revealing for the first time that the movements and control of armies have moved beyond the capabilities for individuals to perceive and understand, “...we see how a field general’s mind is not able to penetrate the chaotic zone of fire and terrain; his vision is obscured by the mayhem of tactical maneuvers.” The era of the genius of a figure like Napoleon has died, and in this new terrain, it is the doctrine, techniques, and squads that move according to abstract rules they are drilled to execute on a battlefield. Despite the inability of an individual to grasp in a grand sweep the forces, they command, “...we also have indications that precise military maneuvers…are not at least imaginable on land and above all in the newly conquered skies.”
The speed, scale, and sheer destruction of modern war are not without their own very precise logic. Technology again here is the operative factor. Just as liberal education is destroyed by the needs of industrial production, so too does the training of soldiers mimic this phenomenon in relation to their profession, “...we witness today how training begins at an early age and is becoming specialized…” The rise of the squad as a tactical necessity is the fullest expression of this form of specialization. Soldiers are no longer trained as being something akin to a warrior but as highly specialized technical operators performing tasks.
Here, one might think of a tank crew as a microcosm of this transformation. Each member is assigned a role in the operation of this machine and is trained and drilled in only a few tasks that he will fulfill over and over again almost without consciously being aware of it. The tank commander will observe the enemy, calling out to his gunner the target and to the loader the type of ammunition required. The loader will turn behind him, grab a shell, and load it into the cannon. The gunner will fire. This is what each one does, and the only thing they will do. Like workers in a factory, each soldier has a position on the assembly line. It is doctrine and training that instills in them the technique of machine operation, a form of endless repetition that creates the inherent logic present in the modern battle space.
It should be noted that this is why it is simply not possible for a man like Napoleon to exist in this conceptualization. The creative genius of such a general does not have any basis for existence in the realm of The Worker. In its place would be a man of pure technique. To be a part of such a system, the individuality necessary to actually command and control forces in such a way as Napoleon did cannot arise. You are left instead with a hierarchy that merely directs the operative forces of an army. More clearly, this may be thought of as an officer corps that has taken on the form of a bureaucracy in which the execution of their duties is purely administrative in nature. While it is, of course, true that throughout history all militaries have been vast bureaucratic structures, the uniqueness of this epoch is that the military bureaucracy is indistinguishable from any other industrial bureaucracy. The officers of this sort of force are by necessity technical operators, merely implementing the doctrine they are trained in, formed, and shaped through a bureaucratic process to a machinelike efficiency.
In concert with this specialization, the weaponry of the age grows ever more complex and destructive. Professional soldiers emerge alongside this development, as conscripts are no longer able to handle the technical aspects associated with war. To field a modern military, “The short duration of military service typical for training the masses is no longer adequate to ensure the requisite mastery of weaponry and personal discipline.” It is not merely enough that they must be able to perform their set tasks; instead, they must be able to do so under the most extreme duress. The loader of this tank crew must be shaped in long-term professional training to perform his set of tasks over and over again regardless of the position he finds himself in. In the same way that you cannot merely switch out a skilled machinist for any worker you find, a squad is predicated on the notion that only specific technical operators may fill a niche.
This mechanistic transformation is the appropriate level to understand how the form of a modern war takes shape. The doctrine instilled in an armed force produces grand formations, moving according to a logic learned much prior, with results determined before the first shot is fired. Battles are no longer discrete events such as at Austerlitz or Gettysburg but occur across an entire frontage. Reinforcements and materiel now funnel in continuously through railways like arteries that deliver continual lifeblood to an army group. The deciding factor in such an engagement isn’t the decisions made by a general who, through some creative force divines the correct disposition of his forces, but in the industrial capacity of a nation to send as much support as possible to the front.
Take for example here the opening offensive of the First World War by the German Empire. The Schlieffen Plan was devised as an ingenious method by Von Schlieffen—although subsequently altered by Von Moltke the Younger—in which German forces would move through Belgium into France. On paper, the plan seemed reasonable enough: an army group would tack left of Paris to freeze the Parisian garrison in place long enough to envelop and destroy the French Army at Alsace. The fundamental problem with this is that the French could simply move their mobilized military by railway to eventually block the German advance at the First Battle of the Marne. The Germans were stopped not because the French had superior leadership or battlefield acumen, but because the French had the ability to bring sufficient mass and firepower to the battlefield through technological advances. This is the essence of the battle of materiel.
Such war is no longer an affair between small parts of a nation and their unformed forces but requires the mobilization of the entirety of all industrial resources toward their ends. Even democratic states that have not succumbed to totalitarianism recognize the contours of their age and, “...no one has yet rejected the call-up of immense, amorphous masses of human beings…” Death and destruction occur at the level of annihilation, leaving the victor to be the force that best understands the nature of mechanized war.
For the individual, any remaining zones of sensitivity are now annihilated, as the soldier experiences nothing but a constant fraying of the nerves. His fate in battle is no longer a thing that is controlled by his own skill or luck, but determined weeks or months in advance, his position being smashed by pre-sighted artillery. Like the pedestrian amongst oncoming cars, he too learns to conform himself to this reality. Already unfeeling and an object unto himself, the worker-type continues to see himself molded into nothing more than a component part of a larger technological machine.
This produces quite a remarkable paradox, regarding how to understand the individual’s place in a war of material. It is both mechanistic and mathematical to an extent not seen in prior wars, resembling a Hieronymus Bosch painting more than a battlefield in its anarchic violence. Men that meet on a battlefield performing the precise motions of a skilled worker produce a firestorm that overwhelms and destroys all intelligibility.
Totally reduced and left with no form of self remaining, a mechanistic death becomes his highest relation to pain. Much like in a naval engagement when a ship is struck, all that is left for the individual is that he is, “...no longer to try to avoid this fate, but to ensure that it takes place with a flag held high…one repeatedly comes across a remarkable attitude that leads one to believe that in the decisive moments death is simply not seen.” The battle of annihilation turns to resemble this combat at sea where, “...one sees neither the sailor, as he is invisible in a way more significant than purely physical, nor a mass of soldiers; instead, one sees the naval fleet or ship.” Lost and reduced in this incomprehensible convulsion, the battle itself attains a form of abstraction so that one only sees the mechanical instead of the human.
Remember the earlier story of the wanderers crossing the great sheets of ice to see a new era emerge beneath the cracks? Lost in this similar havoc of this battlefield, all that seems left for the modern soldier is to accept that their fate has been decided long in advance. Much like Achilles meeting his inevitable death beneath the walls of Troy, something akin to an older pre-modern form of heroism is brought to mind. In a very odd manner, this total collapse of intelligibility on the mechanized battlefield radically recenters the individual. Despite how much of this paper has been devoted to an understanding of the hollowing out of The Worker by the grinding processes of industrial life, it’s here that he regains something.
For such a person who has so utterly and completely been robbed of individual choice, a sense of self, and any form of emotion, where can he find his final revelation? If the Last Man can be understood in his refusal to accept his own mortality, The Worker finds himself at home with the complete submission of his will to death itself, “Only he who feels secure in immediate proximity to death finds himself in the highest state of security.” But we of course do not live in pre-modern times, and gone too are the possibilities of a death like Achilles or Cato.
This instead is an epoch of extreme nihilism. The Worker, as it has been noted, is not one that is trained in the earlier forms of humanism or liberal arts, but a purely specialized technician. His manner of attaining death takes its form from his age. If the war of material truly consists of nothing more than the total mobilization of national industrial resources for the front, then what say does he really have in this fate? Like the trains carrying munitions to be expended endlessly on enemy positions, the fate of this individual carries no more importance than to be expended for the war effort. There is no more meaning in his falling from the shrapnel of an artillery battery than there is in his death in a suicide bombing. The logic of this new age culminates in him sealed inside a torpedo, reduced to nothing more than a guidance system, his death a certainty, with “...all potential for good luck eliminated with mathematical certainty…”
In an earlier time, he may have embarked on a forlorn hope as a pre-modern form of such a feat. Think here of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, a Union military regiment that lead the assault on Fort Wagner in 1863. Charging through an unprotected approach to the fort, they were devastated by Confederate artillery fire and ultimately repulsed once they breached the ramparts. Their assault was one of extreme hazards, but the deaths they suffered were not an actual teleological end of the attack itself. The objective was to take the fort by force of arms. This is the difference between heroism that defies death and a form of heroism in which death is the culmination.
Heroism however loses all of its nature and character in this age of nihilism. It manifests as the death and destruction of whole societies. The mass formations marching like, “...magical figures whose innermost meaning is directed to the exorcism of pain.” are merely hurdling themselves to a kind of ritualistic mass suicide. If death as a mere technical operator of a torpedo is the logical conclusion for the individual Worker, the mass death of the entirety of the political community is the only possible “exorcism of pain” that can be attained.
We end up with nothing more than, “...an enormous organizational capacity…alongside a complete blindness vis-a-vis values, belief without meaning, discipline without legitimacy…” A machine whose final teleology is to send faceless human beings to their deaths in endless battles of annihilation. The ultimate logic of a political community oriented around pain results in nothing less than, “...the preparatory stage of ruin…”
It may be of importance here to stop and note that Jünger attempts to draw a point of departure in that there are two possible forms a modern war may proceed along. There is one of mass politics, and there is another form of conflict in the war cabinet. The war launched by the war cabinet, “...is a carefully deliberated war, which has specific objectives and whose timing can be chosen based on objective circumstances.” His use of the word “objective” here strikes me as being amenable to two forms of interpretation. Much of what constitutes The Worker is from the objective nature of technology—and certainly raises a possibility that his endorsement of the war cabinet is meant in this manner of objective.
However, there is a second interpretation of “objective” as it is being used here that I think holds a much more sophisticated attack on the mass politics of The Worker and the form of war that he produces. The objective nature of such a war council calls to mind the rationality of decision-making more reminiscent of what Clausewitz discusses in On War. The Clausewitzian notion of war is a political object pursued through the rationality of the state. It is a political policy—not subject to absolute ends which The Worker seeks out. It’s the incompatibility of the idea of “specific objectives” that seems to repudiate the notions implied in The Worker more broadly.
Given the choice between these two forms of war, “...it is beyond doubt that anyone analyzing in an unbiased way the essence of power relations will prefer a war cabinet’s war over a popular war.” It’s worth asking, after so much time devoted to analyzing the nature of pain, that he makes a point to emphasize the true preferable nature of a war not formed from popular passions. A war that has specific objectives is one that is by necessity not subject to the totalizing pursuit of nihilistic power that the mass politics of this era embrace.
I’d posit here that Jünger mentions this because the form of war practiced by The Worker is simply an absurdity. Another Clausewitz term might be helpful in getting to this point—friction. Friction is the concept introduced by Clausewitz of certain inertia in a military force. The idea is that order will always have to filter through a chain of command, and will never be executed how and when an officer intends it to. Like a body moving through the water, no matter how much the brain wills it, the limbs are always slowed down in comparison to walking on land. This vision of a totalitarian polity with an ever-increasing fixation on the perfectibility of efficiency runs into real constraints.
Officers must still give orders, orders must still be delivered, and those orders must be fulfilled. This view opens up space for the influence of chance and luck. A company may be destroyed or may escape danger because an artillery officer called in the wrong grid square. An infantry platoon may successfully take a trench because a machine gunner didn’t do proper maintenance on his weapon and it jammed at the moment of impact. More broadly, when one thinks through the number of occurrences in war and life that fall into this sphere of uncontrollable mistake and error, it is clear that no such thing as the total state or total war is possible.
To return to my example of the Schlieffen Plan, I left out a few details in order to be able to make a point here. While certainly, the French industrial and railway capacity was crucial to turning away the offensive, so too was the fact that the plan itself was subject to fundamental human flaws. The right flank which was meant to turn west of Paris actually drifted east once their commanding officer lost contact with the German army to his east and shifted his forces to keep any gaps from emerging in their front. Their tightly controlled and planned timetable for the offensive was also ruined by stubborn resistance by the Belgians—despite clear Belgian material disadvantages. Human error and human choice, even in this war of material, proved to be decisive factors, not merely the grand total of munitions that one side could stockpile.
Jünger also fought through the entire course of the First World War as an officer, and as such would have been well acquainted with these realities. Despite his effort to draw out what the teleology of this system entails, it seems to be difficult to completely buy that he would not have in mind the considerable real-world limitations of attempting to implement this theoretical vision.
What I think Jünger seeks to point out is that the ends of The Worker are flawed from their inception. He may be striding forth on the world-historical stage, but only to his certain doom. This apocalyptic vision of war is also subject to actual real political constraints. The Worker may see his ends being unlimited, but other states do exist, and they can marshal their own resources against this total state. The total mobilization implied in this state still has the fundamental constraint that resources are limited. Food, ammunition, and manpower are all finite, there is only so much destruction that a state can endure before it will be brought to its knees. The Worker may have limitless ends, but this will seemingly only drag him into numerous conflicts, and owing to his totalizing nature, he will only continue to provoke more war as he attempts to exert his nihilistic will over other political communities.
This, of course, is the exact end that Nazi Germany met in the Second World War. Its ideological positions brought the Nazi state into war with every other contemporary Great Power. Liberal Democracy, thankfully, prevailed over both Fascism and Communism. Despite the ability of the total state to seemingly marshal its resources on an unprecedented scale, this inherent flaw crippled both ideological systems. Absent a rational political limiting structure, the mass political ideologies consumed themselves. The Islamic State followed in their footsteps in Iraq and Syria, constantly striking out at new enemies as an ideological requisite, only to galvanize a multi-national coalition that could outclass them in every respect.
Jünger at one point asks us to set aside our moral judgments when analyzing The Worker in order to see the reality of our age unfolding before us, “Change…becomes most clearly visible when we seek to understand this change without prior value judgment.” The logic that underpins the violence and ruin unleashed by the worker-type, despite the moral revulsion that he evokes, is vitally important. On Pain laid out the teleology of technological nihilism raised to the status of mass politics in 1934. Five years later the Second World War saw these “values” put into practice in the industrial-scale deaths of millions in the Holocaust, battles of annihilation on the Eastern Front, and the deaths of thousands of Japanese kamikaze pilots.
It’s here in these “values” that I finally return to the Islamic State. The core of what I would suggest, as an answer to the question of who the man is that runs off to join a modern Jihadist organization, is that he is not exceedingly different than the masses that rose up in Weimar Germany and embraced National Socialism.
When we ask ourselves now how it is that people hailing from the middle class in Western democracies could possibly emigrate to Syria and Iraq to seek their own deaths, it’s worth considering that they are simply another manifestation of this worker-type. Born into lives in the metaphorical side streets beneath our own contemporary landmarks, pain continues its slow and incisive rotations just as it always has. Lacking meaning, and shaped by an atomized and uncaring technological society, they too slowly assume the form of The Worker, and necessarily, his unfeeling logic.