When the poet Lamartine noted in 1839 that ‘La France s’ennuie’ (France is bored), he had hit on something quintessential to the zeitgeist of modern Europe. Whilst the previous revolution of 1789 had been precipitated by the political hunger of ‘sans culottes’ and peasants with breeches rioting in the Vendee, the revolutions of 1848 featured philosophers discussing how many angels you can fit on a pin head.
This bourgeois corruption reflected what Guy Debord saw as the evolution of society as ‘spectacle’ . In this, ‘being becomes having and having appearing’. This can be seen in the new inner cities of Europe, where the lumpenproletariat are forced to live in a sense of ‘appearing’ (the mobile phone, the Real Madrid football shirt) – masking a hopeless, valueless existence.
Now, in liberal capitalism’s twilight zone: they are destined to merely ‘appear’. The entire culture is prey to this devaluation where appearance replaces substance in large swathes of society: from the calibre of government to music to literature.
From Bach’s Goldberg Variations to Coldplay. When the seventies rock genre descended into 60-minute drum solos and Mike Oldfield twinkling on bells- along came the Sex Pistols and the Teutonic boot stomping of ‘I Don’t Want a Holiday in the Sun’ to wake society from its coma.
Great art is Conrad’s Captain Kurtz going crazy down the Congo River; not a LGBQT love triangle in Tower Hamlets. In this way culture is cyclical; it is not a one- way street to universality and ‘equality’.
This is how culture morphs into civilisation, and it occurs in all societies. It begins with the ‘rationalisation’ of spirit; the Greeks went from the Dionysian to the Platonic Apollonian, from Nietzschean celebration of life to its dissection.
Art and society become vehicles for the ‘human rights’ and ‘equality’ miasma. In this post-Enlightenment frenzy, secular righteousness has replaced the virtue of Christian proselytising, liberalism having derived from Christianity.
The Schools and Universities have become Jesuit driven. That is, ideology driven. This has been aided by the technological age which pushes the human further into Heideggerian inauthenticity. Concentration spans become shorter and technology provides quicker, faster, shorter cultural forms; society becomes condensed and homogenised. The one fits the many. Finally, society falls into a stupefying boredom.
Spengler in ‘The Decline of the West’ saw history as cyclical; empires rising and falling. They have an intrinsic organic character like a plant. This view of history differs from the liberal democratic view which sees the inexorable march of progress to the ‘end of history’, a liberal capitalist utopia.
However, Spengler had a Copernican view of history; that is thinking that all cultures have their own life cycle. There is no one hegemonic culture around which others orbit. This was the mistake of the thinking of the ‘Occident’; that it was the grand star; the sun around which others twinkled. This led to Christian missionary, colonisation, and development.
Countries generally fall into one of two types: civilisational or cultural. Civilisational countries believe themselves to be ‘progressive’; they occupy themselves with visions of universalist humanity, it is external looking. Culture reflects homogenous countries which see their own culture as primary, essential to survival. For them ‘civilisation’ is of secondary importance.
These countries see culture as the bonds which keep the nation together. Civilisational countries are, for example, France, England and the US. They share a faith in their Napoleonic post-Enlightenment mission.
Culture countries are Germany and Russia. Putin is not civilising or exporting bolshevism; he is reinventing Peter the Great’s empire. The problem for the West is that the global neo-liberal underpinning of civilisational society is collapsing due to scarcity, population crises and a profound loss of ‘telos’ or meaning.
The beginning of ‘modern’ civilisation was the emergence of Enlightenment rationalist thinking and turning Christianity into an egalitarian cult called `liberalism’.
The driving force of history is destiny and incident. The liberal destiny provided the French Revolution as ‘incident’. This was the ‘cultural’ phase of the cycle; the spring and summer of birth and growth. There is a renaissance of ideas- technology serves as part of ‘community’.
This was Ancient Greece in its Dionysian phase before Socrates. The Romans went from the democratic republic to the empire and ended up burning books. ‘Civilisation’ occurs during the autumn and winter of societies. It is when reason, analysis takes over -when society makes a Faustian pact with Mephistopheles. This is our modernity- where the quest for the infinite is selling one’s soul for the secrets of science, the search for the infinite.
It is the yearning for ‘progress’; money becomes commoditised infiltrating all sectors until you have a market in abortion clinics. The ‘individual’ becomes the highest value and Kant embodies this reasoning into law. Increasingly atomised, the individual becomes the leitmotif for the civilisation, rather than tradition or community.
The bonds of soil and labour are cast off for the final stage of liberalism; the sanctification of globalised markets and the ‘universalist’ export of late stage Faustian culture through globalisation. However, the new stage declines when nature in the shape of environment, viruses and growth limits are worn out. Then the spectre returns; not the spectre of communism, but those Teutonic jack boots. Spengler’s cycle is complete when Caesarism emerges as the final aspect of Faustian culture.
Putin is merely one example of the metamorphosis of liberal capitalism into liberal authoritarianism. The image of Covid and the end of liberty will be the enduring image; and whilst the books are not burning – they are just not being published.
In the final stage of modernity boredom reigns supreme. Arthur Schopenhauer defined boredom as a peculiarly modern affliction:
‘What keeps all living things busy and in motion is the striving to exist. But when existence is secured, they do not know what to do; that is why the second thing that sets them in motion is the striving to get rid of the burden of existence, not to feel it any longer, to ‘kill time’ i.e., to escape boredom.’
Take Ukraine. It’s a war nobody wants except Putin. It is merely disruptful to liberalism; an annoying disturbance, but it happens anyway, it is history chugging along in an old car until it runs out of petrol. There is no great ideological fight; Russia having sold its soul to Mephistopheles and joined the Faustian chorus when Peter the Great decided speaking French was trendy.
Then the intellectuals Lenin and Trotsky imported Marxism and stuck it to the peasants of Turgenev and Dostoevsky, steeped as they are in mystical spirit and endless landscapes. Zelensky’s biggest enemy isn’t the West’s reticence to send more drones, more weapons and fighter jets. Zelensky’s biggest enemy is boredom. The front pages have now reverted to type; articles on Trans and the US mid terms.
Russia’s intelligentsia of the nineteenth century was satirised in Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel ‘Oblomov’. In it the young liberal nobleman cannot muster the energy to do anything; he cannot make decisions or commit to action. His greatest achievement in the entire novel, reminiscent of Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, is moving from bed to chair.
Oblomovism became a characteristic of the Russian ‘avos’; the art of ignoring present problems in the hope that they will go away, rather than mere slothfulness. Oblomovism has made a comeback-but in the West; It is seen in the culture of decline of service, of duty. It is visible in the highest echelons of power where the key word is mediocrity -welcome to Biden and Harris.
It is evident in the Russian military where corruption, theft and ‘Oblomovism’ remain rampant. It signals the complete rationalisation of life, the end of creativity and the victory of ‘appearance’. Nothing is left sacred or mysterious; every aspect of the human, every experience is deconstructed and milled through mass culture and technology. Flaubert described his lot as ‘merde au surplus’- ‘a surplus of shit’. He often complained how dull the world is, that he was destined to experience an eternity of ‘ennui’. Flaubert attempted foreign travel as an outlet to boredom. When he arrived in Alexandria he found, to his horror, three-foot-tall letters inscribed on the side of the Pompei column: ‘THOMPSON FROM SUNDERLAND’ .
Zelensky has the technology, the weapons, the PR gurus etc. What he has to face, however, is ‘Oblomovism’. Boredom works within a strange dialectic of attraction and repelling.
Academic research has shown how boredom has been a primary drive in seminal historic events; Kustermans suggests boredom was a major reason behind Hitler’s foray into World War 2.
It was a major cause of the decline of British colonialism and the reason why Eichmann joined the SS. It has been held responsible for the transformation from traditional to modern art. It appears as an escape route from the ‘ennui’ of the modern world. But boredom, like history, is cyclical, it ebbs and flows.
For the Russians, the war in the Ukraine is merely one conflict in a line of conflicts from Afghanistan to Georgia. Perhaps it is Putin’s solution to boredom. The warring element had been far more natural in societies with ‘culture’ as the hegemonic aspect: they feel as if ‘protecting’ a homogenous traditional core.
Liberalism, on the other hand, stares outward in missionary zeal. But now, in the paradox of liberalism, as a means to globalised markets, war becomes a means to extend and protect the neo-liberal world. However, the liberal west now enters the reality of a bipolar or multipolar world rather than the ‘end of history’.
Putin’s endgame is based on boredom; the petering out of interest, the rise of inflationary pressures, the limited attention of Faustian’ man. War, to the average soul, is hideous and boring at the same time. Boredom is at once the spur to warlike action and the cause of its demise, all set within the Spenglerian rise and fall endemic to cultures. Modern liberal culture has substituted surrogates for war- from Twitter to Netflix where, in the final stages of atrophy, appearance replaces reality. For Camus war and life are the will to power pushing history along:
‘He had been bored, that’s all, bored like most people. Hence, he had made himself out of whole cloth a life full of complications and drama. Something must happen-and that explains most human commitments. Something must happen, even loveless slavery, even war or death. Hurray then for funerals!’
Brian Patrick Bolger studied at the LSE. He has taught political philosophy and applied linguistics in Universities across Europe. His articles have appeared in ’The National Interest’, ‘The Montreal Review’, ‘The European Conservative’ ,’The Salisbury Review’, ‘The Village’, ‘New English Review’, ‘The Hungarian Conservative’, ‘The Burkean’ , ‘The Daily Globe’, ‘American Thinker’, ‘Philosophy Now’. His new book, ‘Coronavirus and the Strange Death of Truth’, is now available in the UK and U.S