Review- Jünger, “The Worker”

Ernst Jünger, “The Worker” (1932) (translated from the German by Bogdan Costea and Laurence Hemming) – I used to think I was clever, telling leftists how much they had to learn from reactionary sources. I don’t think I was wrong, really, but there’s definitely diminishing returns. I guess I just like sampling many kinds of ideas and writing and wanted a rationale to get friends on board. Maybe a better rationale is that if you expand your knowledge-base you get a broader and more flexible idea of how thought works. You see patterns you might otherwise miss. Dump a bunch of shit into the hopper and see what materializes.

Ernst Jünger typically yields fewer excuses for reading than other right-wing figures, because he’s been assimilated as a “literary” figure, largely on the strength of his First World War memoir/novel “Storm of Steel” and because his politics were pretty heterodox. But he was definitely “in the mix” of fractious ideological politics in the interwar period, hovering around the Conservative Revolutionary faction- antidemocratic German nationalists who were a bit too aristocratic and intellectual for the Nazis (who wound up stealing most of their thunder). Jünger wasn’t much of a joiner, it seems, though good biographical material on him isn’t easy to find in English. Not being a joiner is one of those things that might make it hard to get into print, but sometimes adds staying power to the works that do make it- and avoiding joining the Nazis, as Jünger did, was a pretty good move. They liked him (mostly), he didn’t like them, though was perfectly willing to cooperate with them when they were in power.

On the eve of the Nazi takeover, Jünger published an ideological/philosophical polemic, “The Worker.” Jünger studied entomology and practiced photography at high levels, along with writing and war. His eye attuned to arresting images and subtle categorization schemes combines with his immersion in German philosophy to produce a strange, unsettling, fascinating work.

The basic thrust of “The Worker” appears to be this: far from workers being defined by their relationship to the means of production, what makes a worker is a sort of existential status, conferred not by power-relations but by what could be called task-relations. Roughly, if your life is organized around tasks, you are a worker, in Jünger’s conception. The worker stands in contrast to the bourgeoisie, whose life is organized around self-image, more or less, and security. The bourgeoisie is individualist and thinks in terms of his rights and obligations, even when trying to organize collectively- this is how Jünger dismisses Marxism. The worker thinks collectively even when expressing himself, always thinking in terms of getting the job done.

Technology and politics make the eclipse of the bourgeoisie by the worker inevitable, Jünger argues, and cites rapid industrialization and the First World War as proof. As technology and social organization grows in complexity, the politics that governed past orders become obsolete, and so too do the people that populated them. There’s a lot of philosophical back-and-forth here about forms, types, and dominion, in the way that continental philosophy has with its terminologies. The situation is too dynamic to be specific — Jünger is often maddeningly unspecific and probably often elliptically refers to figures in German life at the time that I don’t know about — but he confidently proclaims that the dominion of the worker — meaning the imposition of the form of the worker, a social order defined around him — is at hand. Moreover, this is tied in (again, largely elliptically) with Germany’s rising from the ashes of its defeat in the war and ending the Weimar/Versailles order.

There’s a lot more to it than that, and there are interesting nuggets and graceful turns of phrase all over this dense book, but that’s the basic gist. He applies his ideas to art and to politics towards the end, all the time coming to the conclusion that man, as conceived of by the bourgeoisie nineteenth century, is all over, that something determined by “the work character” will replace him. Well… is he wrong? I do sometimes make a game of thinking about how I would interact with people from the past. The more I learn, the harder it seems like it would be to communicate with people from even relatively recent history. People, especially bourgeois, educated people, were supposed to have so many accoutrements to their personhood that contemporary people (even people with similar class backgrounds) lack…

But in other respects, of course, Jünger really whiffed the predictive aspect (though he was sufficiently vague that he could’ve raised an eyebrow and say- “did I??” On top of everything else, he lived to be 102!). You can argue that American power (and a lot of Soviet power too) devoted itself in the post-WWII period to suppressing the unholy “dominion” of obsessive, death-and-discomfort-disregarding task-completion-ends-before-means ubermenschen Jünger foresaw. The consumer, not the worker, became the central figure in America’s world-building project, and the Soviet Union, dedicated (in Jünger’s telling) to a fake socially-conscious Marxist idea of work, tagged along. To the extent anyone today on the right reads Jünger and gets past “Storm of Steel” to this work, they mostly see “The Worker” as something (something nicely, technically non-Nazi) to which to aspire, something that has yet to happen.

Jünger lived the life of the scary early twentieth century cultured, amoral ubermensch, from war hero to literary star to guy who scared the Nazis while not deviating from his own eccentric but right-wing politics to extraordinarily long-lived and productive literary institution. Arguably, he lived it longer and more categorically than anybody. I don’t generally think people in the past were better or smarter than people in the present (or vice versa), but I do think that shifts in context change what people look and act like. They really don’t make people simultaneously that educated and, for lack of a better word, crazy anymore. Our contemporary meritocratic bourgeoisie likes to pay itself in the back for its SAT scores but they couldn’t touch Jünger or millions of others like him across the global bourgeoisie in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unlike a lot of the crazy, absurdly well-educated people who made life so interesting, Jünger was also actually smart- perceptive, adaptable. That didn’t mean he was right about things, but he was smart.

So I’m not trying to dunk on the guy, or any rate bag on his brains, when I say that in a lot of parts of “The Worker” I found myself thinking about two contemporary figures: Elon Musk and Mike Rowe. In terms of intelligence, sensitivity, culture, capacity for expression, there is no meaningful comparison between those two utter dullards and Jünger. But Jünger himself makes clear that the task is what matters, and capitalism harnessed task-centric thinking to its own machine for producing legitimacy. Given his denunciation of the fineness of bourgeois distinctions and the “museal” quality of culture the dying bourgeoisie produced, how could Jünger complain if something rather a lot like his “total work character” or “typus of the worker” gets dumbed down (that is, rendered into an effective tool for a task) into the sentimental, emotive American idiom and sold to schmucks by the bourgeoisie to get them to work harder, disregard safety regulations, absolutely refuse to unionize? Jünger rather pointedly ignores America in “The Worker.” But the idea that the “real” class distinction is between those who do the work and those who don’t, and that management and labor are on the same side against whoever… well, Jünger would no doubt quibble, or else fuck off on a hike to take acid (he was friends with Albert Hoffman!) and collect bug samples. Being a continental ubermensch of Jünger’s vintage means never having to say you’re sorry.

Like I said, none of this is to draw a straight line between “The Worker” and Musk’s bro-Pinochetery or Rowe’s abject “dirty job” cosplaying. It’s highly unlikely either have read Jünger or would understand this book meaningfully. Rather, and here we get back to the beginning of this review, I think it’s useful, or anyway poignant and interesting, to look at how ideas and tropes migrate, appear and reappear, in varying contexts according to disparate but often related logics. Broadly speaking, Jünger and Musk face some of the same problems — legitimizing hierarchy — in radically different but genetically/temporally related contexts. The differences in context are many and don’t need explication beyond pointing to the vast decline in literary standards between the thirties and now. The similarities include a widespread disbelief in established authorities on the part of classes that are supposed to support them and a prevailing sense of emergency. What do you need in an emergency? Jünger makes nods to Carl Schmitt’s “state of exception” towards the end of “The Worker,” Musk just tweets about coups. Tragedy, farce, etc.

I suppose, to subcategorize like “The Worker” with Jünger would a bug, we could say that both Jünger and Musk attempt to make effort — putting in the hours, as CEOs are indeed wont to do, sometimes — the marker of a worker’s legitimacy whilst avoiding much of, if not all, of the sentimental baggage previous iterations of the same concept carried. Neither Musk nor Jünger are/were your father’s management hack. No gold watch at retirement, no cuckoo clock, no country songs. What you get are appeals to youth, force, power, the future (which in turn validate the “cooler” aspects of the past). Of course, with Musk, things are just stripped down to their lowest common denominator appeal, whereas in “The Worker” you have a product of high-end (if occasionally fatuously) European thought… I know which I prefer, but I also know what does “the work” it was intended to do at this moment in time. Ah, well. *****

Review- Jünger, “The Worker”

One thought on “Review- Jünger, “The Worker”

  1. Can one explain this weird fascination for the three nazi guys : Junger, Heidegger, Schmitt as nemesis of « wild globalization » ? They all three finished « disappointed » Hitler policy as too little, too vulgar for their expectations. They all three died old and famous in their beloved Germany certainly proud of the way they have fooled their very naive western admirers and followers, waiting for the globalization of this somewhat abject fame.


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