One should at last have a sufficiently profound comprehension of Napoleon’s astonishment when he caught sight of Goethe: it betrays what had for centuries been thought was meant by the ‘German spirit.’ ‘Voilà un homme!—which is to say: ‘But that is a man! And I had expected only a German!’
So writes Nietzsche in section 209 of Beyond Good and Evil, reminding his readers that
it is not very long since a mannish woman could, with unbridled presumption, venture to commend the Germans to Europe’s sympathy as gentle, good-hearted, weak-willed and poetic dolts. (The “mannish woman” he refers to, incidentally, is French novelist Germaine Necker.)
Nietzsche is attempting to describe those changes undergone by the German national character under the sign of a certain Prussian prince, Fredrick—a transition from being (seen as a) nation of “weak-willed and poetic dolts,” to bearers of
the skepticism of audacious manliness, which is related most closely to genius for war and conquest and which first entered Germany in the person of the great Frederick … it is the German form of skepticism which, as a continuation of Frederick-ism intensified into the most spiritual domain, for a long time brought Europe under the dominion of the German spirit and its critical and historical mistrust.
The above reminds us of a complaint published by a member of the German-American community on the eve of Prohibition, to the effect that dry laws were principally an attack on the German-descended community in the United States, with its well-known festive and jovial nature. Less flatteringly, we may consider novelist Mary Shelley’s complaint that “Germans never hurry,” or the 1820s British traveler John Russell’s description of a
plodding, easily contented people … endowed neither will great acuteness of perception nor quickness … it is long before [a German] can be brought to comprehend the bearings of what is new to him, and it is difficult to rouse him to ardor in its pursuit … not distinguished by enterprise or activity.
Documenting shifts in national stereotypes, development economist Ha-Joon Chang comments on the characterization of the German people by “another mid-19th century British traveler,” according to which they were:
too individualistic and unable to co-operate with each other. The Germans’ inability to co-operate was, in the view of the British, most strongly manifested in the poor quality and maintenance of their public infrastructure, which was so bad that John McPherson, a viceroy of India (and, therefore, well used to treacherous road conditions), wrote, “I found the roads so bad in Germany that I directed my course to Italy.”
This last remark makes me think of an Albanian military log from World War I, according to which an Italian general is described as possessing all the virtues of discipline and steadfastness lacking in his German counterpart.
A not dissimilar process was undergone by the Japanese, about whom American missionary Sidney Gulick wrote in 1903 that they “give an impression … of being lazy and utterly indifferent to the passage of time.”
Gulick was no casual observer. He lived in Japan for 25 years (1888–1913), fully mastered the Japanese language and taught in Japanese universities. Gulick thus reinforced the “cultural stereotype of the Japanese as an ‘easygoing’ and ‘emotional’ people who possessed qualities like ‘lightness of heart, freedom from all anxiety for the future, living chiefly for the present’,” which apparently prevailed in the west at the time. Likewise, in the early twentieth century, Beatrice Webb described the people of Japan as endowed with “objectionable notions of leisure and a quite intolerable personal independence.” Of the Koreans, she said that these constituted a nation of “12 millions of dirty, degraded, sullen, lazy and religionless savages who slouch about in dirty white garments of the most inept kind and who live in filthy mudhuts.”
By reproducing so many examples from Ha-Joon Chang’s ample catalogue, I mean only to illustrate just how entrenched and widespread a perception so wholly contrary to that which is today equally entrenched and widespread was. It hardly bears remarking how differently we view the German, Japanese, and Korean national characters today. It is important to realize that changes in habit and behavior can be brought about through policy and new economic conditions.
This should not be taken to imply that there is no enduring character at all. Japanese aesthetic, for example, the plain insight of wabi sabi, is certainly not a modern invention, but an enduring legacy whose presence those travelers we cited apparently failed to appreciate, and whose appeal to modern peoples had not yet made itself known. We may imagine that which distinguishes one culture from another on a horizontal scale, where each can rank higher or lower on the scale of adaptation to industrial modernity. Some countries climbed that y-axis faster and more successfully than others.
Correspondingly, just as some find their images elevated from pre-industrial peasant to industry-ready, efficiency-maximizers, others retain or acquire the stigma of being ill-suited to a more regimented, productive era, even as they are incorporated into it. The key here is that they are incorporated as “peripheral,” importing (rather than “central,” exporting) societies. Former imperial centers, centers of learning and technical innovation, can become backwaters, and vice-versa.
Ha-Joon Chang understands industrial production methods, the schedule imposed on persons by modern economic imperatives, and state policy aimed at producing such an economy as molding the habits of peoples and so altering the image others have of them. And this will surely constitute a feedback loop: the more competent a country’s workforce is perceived to be, the more investment it will attract, providing it with resources to improve and innovate.
Of course, the effort to ensure that such a national brand is properly projected can take precedence over the reality being constructed, and even create a rift between these. A “brand” can come to contradict the reality, as in the case of the so-called Paris Syndrome, a documented phenomenon causing principally East Asian tourists to experience severe psychological distress on account of their disappointment with the realities of the City of Love.
Where new economic arrangements and methods of production bring about changes in a population, these changes should be understood to be psychological. The transition from pre-industrial master of oral tradition, pitifully unable to conform to a modern working schedule, to reliable desk-job employee, with a memory and attention-span many times shorter than that of his grandparents, is a transition of values—of what is valued, and so, what we spend our time on.
Such a psychological change requires that we cease valuing previous ways of life. Nietzsche calls this skepticism. The great transition he notes in the German character was for him brought about by mixture. The mixture of classes, each with its own disposition, ingrained over generations, produced a people rife with contradictory personalities, and so produced the “skeptic” type. We may understand this in terms of a public sphere becoming inundated with new ideas and technologies that destabilized former consensuses, such that the old “centers” around which life was structured could no longer hold.
A minority of skeptics can, for Nietzsche, become as spiritual kin to Frederick. The contradictions they observe between ideas and inclinations can allow them to stand apart from these, so that the only unifying principle is their own perception, that which they bring to the table, “the will.” Their will is strong enough to be its own center, its own meaning (we leave the question of how a will that stands apart from any prior, inner essence or character might differ or, rather, fail to do so, from purely accidental neural arousal).
The majority, however, will find the loss of old modes of thinking and of existing in community simply primes them to latch onto something new, something offering stability. This new stability would be the tremendous homogenization represented by political modernity, and the emergence of Ortega y Gasset’s “mass man.” The result of all this epochal upheaval, all this confusion and skepticism, paradoxically, was a simpler world. The world that was left behind was, in some ways, far more pluralistic than modernity. Writes Catherine Pickstock:
ambiguity of structure seems to mirror the decentred ordering of mediaeval society, for in that period there was no absolute centre of sovereignty …. According to a model in which there is only one centre of sovereignty (a model which could be used to describe the absolutist political structure of the later-medieval, early-modern and baroque periods), there can only be a connection with the transcendent at that central point, so that everything beneath that point is effectively secularized.
Today, a newly popular term for the kind of transition we are describing is “mass formation” psychosis. New ideas—Nietzsche’s “mixture”—provoking free floating anxiety which is suddenly resolved by having people’s attentions fixate upon a single, simple set of solutions. Far from fostering a genuinely “skeptical” or Frederick-ian type, this would seem to generate greater conformity. Then again, in the west, the most conformist among us, so far as prevailing norms are concerned, are often also the most rhetorically skeptical when it comes to anything anchored in tradition. That which broke down is constantly critiqued, whereas that which replaced it (the new morals of post-modernity and political correctness) becomes an idol.
If we accept that the way people are perceived can change, as can their actual habits, and that this impacts the degree to which they shape, or are subjected to, a global order, we should be very attentive to how these changes play out over our lifetime. Are we not already seeing Europeans cast as bloodless believers in empty pietisms, and has Europe not, for some time now, been seen as an ineffectual beached whale on the far west of Asia?
Today, we are undergoing tectonic shifts in the means of production and our relationship to them, as well as a new influx of ideas or, more appropriately perhaps, input, through the Internet and various media. We might therefore expect changes to be afoot. If uninterrupted, the process will be one in which society seems to fragment, whereas in reality it becomes more uniform, and the international system finds itself inhabited by new contenders for regional and global hegemony, albeit making their peace with a bulwark of old, established interests.
Who, then, is using the opportunity to make themselves strong—to become central to the international system and supply chains, as well as to project an image of centrality? China seems to be an obvious answer. Here, the population is invited to participate in the very classic project of national greatness (although we may argue that the rugged personalities associated with this project in state propaganda are precisely degraded by the habits of mind cultivated by the surveillance state and social credit system). And China is not alone in meeting the many crises of today with what R.R. Reno calls “strong gods,” that is, powerful, definite, formal imperatives to command one’s loyalty and organize one’s life.
For Europeans, in contrast, a relative lack of manufacturing in comparison with other parts of the world, precarious employment for the young, the flight into the virtual realities of social media, a rejection of “strong gods” and looming geopolitical irrelevancy paint a daunting picture. Not that we are witnessing a return to the uncolonized leisure of pre-industrial society. Post-modernity presents us with a highly disciplined subject, one afraid of the kind of politically incorrect language that may get him fired, cancelled from his online circles or banned from payment processors.
Consider the following “positive spin” on European idiosyncrasy from Mark Leonard:
A few years ago, these companies became aware that although Japan made the best 3G phones in the world, they could not find a global market because the rest of the world could not catch up with the technological innovations to use these “perfect” devices. … “Japan’s cell-phones are like the endemic species that Darwin encountered on the Galápagos Islands—fantastically evolved and divergent from their mainland cousins.” … Europe might now be facing its own “Galápagos moment.” It may be that Europe’s postmodern order has become so advanced and particular to its environment that it is impossible for others to follow. It evolved in a protective ecosystem, shielded from the more muscular, ‘modern’ world where most people live.
There is nothing wrong with this in theory, assuming one can defend oneself, or the international system is stable enough, and global military alliances robust enough, to ensure local exceptionalism, however ill-suited to the “more muscular, ‘modern’ world,” will not be absorbed or ruthlessly subordinated. What seems to be taking place in practice is that we in Europe have developed a political culture and economy that makes it likely our grandchildren will be peripheral to global power games.
In the West, we have cultivated a distaste for anything that seems to rest in itself, to survive over time as an inherited institution, to be other than mere miasmic flux. I explored why this is in “The Open Society and Its Demons.” As Reno puts it, we have made “weak gods” our guides. These are ideas that do not direct us towards anything with a definite shape. They are mere inclusion, mere tolerance and, of course, freedom, understood simply as a negative liberation from constraints.
What we need, then, is to seduce culture back to a “thick” understanding of “the good,” and to build communities in which this good can be properly pursued—not societies in which comfort and pleasure anesthetize us into accepting a highly-controlled, highly-disciplined, invertebrate conformity. At the same time, we need to play the game of high-politics, refusing subjugation to those who have not (yet) rejected their strong gods. We need to be the masters of our own image, to be present to the challenges ahead, and yet, at the same time, we need to avoid the homogenizing impacts of volatile changes, “mass psychosis,” by ruthlessly subjugating technical innovation to culture.
Carlos Perona Calvete has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, and has worked mainly in the field of European project management and policy research.