At the climax of the now-classic movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Nazi soldiers have seized possession of the long-lost ancient Hebrew Ark of the Covenant, intent upon harnessing its supernatural powers to further their dreams of world conquest. At that point, the audience is treated to the anomalous, even garish sight of French archaeologist and Nazi collaborator Dr Rene Belloq, decked out in the ornate robes and headdress of a temple priest, as he prepares to open the Ark and gain control of its supernatural power.
The Nazi plan backfires, of course, because opening the Ark unleashes an momentarily seductive but then horrific Angel of Death, who wreaks havoc on Belloq and the assembled Nazis, melting the flesh from their bones. This is a dramatically appropriate nemesis called down by their hubris in attempting to manipulate the supernatural. Only the brave Indiana Jones and his girlfriend survive, by clenching closed their eyes in a half-instinctive, half-learned humility in the presence of the divine, a cosmic power they do not presume to control.
The image of Belloq's archaic priestly regalia in the midst of the modern Nazi uniforms is jarring, even ridiculous, because of the juxtaposition of the supposedly rationalistic, modern technocracy with the supposedly mystical, antiquated religiosity. Yet that visual oxymoron reveals a more subtle discontinuity, a real cultural regression in Western civilisation to a far more primitive, manipulative form of religiosity. And the nature of this regression can be probed through a curious and prophetic academic anniversary. This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of both renegade Marxist Sinologist Karl Wittfogel's magnum opus, Oriental Despotism, and Catholic historian Christopher Dawson's The Dynamics of World History.
Dawson and Wittfogel warn that all this civilisational progress can in
fact be lost. Morally speaking, we can indeed slide back into a regime
and culture of magic.
Wittfogel was a member of the German communist Frankfurt School, who fled from the Nazis to the United States just before the Second World War. Unlike so many of his Marxist refugee colleagues, however, Wittfogel did not then engage in their scholarly insurgency against American liberalism. Rather, he went through his own sea-change. Central to Marxist orthodoxy was the notion of inexorable historical laws and the unfolding of a single line of historical progress. The "young Marx" himself did make some vague references to an alternative, "Asiatic mode of production" and line of historical development. But that possibility vanished in his later works and those of theorist-activists like Lenin. Wittfogel's study of non-Western civilisations led him to conclude that the Western development of a free market, liberal culture and democratic politics was actually an historical aberration.
Rather, he concluded, the global norm is a monolithic bureaucratic despotism, an administrative sclerosis that would actually be encouraged by any Marxist revolution. And he said so in his hefty, profound critique, Oriental Despotism.
Oxbridge scholar and Harvard lecturer Christopher Dawson is a major figure in 20th century historiography. His 1958 book is a collection of essays on the historical themes drawn from his two dozen works on world and European history, and particularly the Christian Middle Ages. He is best known academically for The Making of Europe, which for decades served as a standard history textbook, and his own 1929 magnum opus, the magisterial Progress and Religion. But now most of Dawson's works are now available only second-hand bookshops or in university reprints, and his Dynamics is a serviceable introduction to his broad historical analysis. Central to this is his observation that any civilisation's spiritual and material aspects form an indivisible unity. Yet, at the height of their material powers, they commonly suffer spiritual decay, eviscerating their productive cultural solidarity. In particular, the modern West, he contended, was founded upon reason and nature-affirming Christianity, and the modern effort to substitute a purely scientific culture is self-destructive.
The curious thing about the Dawson-Wittfogel jubilee is that their practical conclusions converge, although they come from such divergent perspectives. In general, historians say that mankind's historical epochs have been marked by distinct stages in human religiosity. First, among nomads and primitive agriculturalists, there arose shamans, like those still found among Bushmen, who provided their tribes with a first comforting link to the Absolute in their prophetic dream states. Next, simultaneous with the birth of cities and civilisations, professional priest-astronomers castes developed among (for example) the Egyptians, Babylonians and Aztecs, devoted to placating the cosmos with magical and ritualistic sacrifices (sometimes human).
Finally, following the great migrations and invasions circa 1200 BC, the growing perception of a gap between "what is" and "what should be" gave rise to the great world religions. These either revalidated the existing order (like Confucianism), abandoning the natural world for the Absolute (like Vedanta Hinduism and Buddhism) or seeking "purity of heart" in serving a providential history (uniquely among the Hebrews). But contrary to the now reigning "Religion of Progress"–and foreshadowed by the Nazi magi in Raiders of the Lost Ark — Dawson and Wittfogel warn that all this civilisational progress can in fact be lost. Morally speaking, we can indeed slide back into a regime and culture of magic.
Dawson and Wittfogel clearly agree on the following fundamental points. The development of Western civilisation, with its roots in classical Greece, ancient Israel, the Christian synthesis and later post-Christian liberal culture, is a historical aberration. It is a unique development. The natural, almost universal norm for the development of advanced civilisations, in the Middle East, China, India, Southeast Asia, Central, South and North America and Africa, is different. The young Marx described it as "the Asiatic mode of production". The pioneer sociologist Max Weber called it as "oriental despotism". And Wittfogel termed it "hydraulic societies" — civilisations whose cultures have been decisively shaped by the growth of a centralised bureaucracy which managed flood control and irrigation dykes and canals for the intensive agriculture of their great river valleys.
These were — and are — civilisations decisively shaped by the administration of mass levies for the construction and maintenance of great public works, first upon the hydraulic works themselves, and then upon roads, fortifications, temples, palaces. All these ultimately preserved the great managerial bureaucracy itself. They are civilisations, as Wittfogel says, in which "the state is manifestly stronger than the society", with unlimited rights of public domain and strictly limited notions of private property. They have few or no autonomous public associations apart from the regime, and certainly no independent institutions of education, medical care or social support.
Furthermore, the bureaucratic class — often a priestly caste — possesses a self-serving monopoly on scientific knowledge, particularly astronomy and what we would today call climatology. Their universe is ruled by an impersonal, merciless cosmic order, sometimes requiring human sacrifices. Metaphysically, their primary cosmological image is an endless, pointless Great Circle, the fatalism of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. Dawson says that they have "the same tendency to turn away from human life and the external order of the world in search of the transcendent". Practically speaking, the monolithic unity of administrative, military and religious authority results in a massive devaluation of human life.
Contrast this with the heritage of the Christian Middle Ages. In feudal Europe the religious leadership maintained a stubborn independence from the political administration and the local rulers defended their local prerogatives against the central government. Most of the great public works like irrigation canals, flood control and mills were produced by local monasteries or manors. The trades were ruled by independent guilds, and the schools and universities were autonomous corporations, which were genuinely committed to free inquiry.
Given the Christian commitment to the dignity of the individual life and labour, civil society as a whole was stronger, more vibrant and more innovative than the state. The whole of Western civilisation operated almost instinctively in accordance with the principle that would be codified a half-millennium later as "subsidiarity" (Catholic) or "sphere sovereignty" (Calvinist). The state was necessarily limited primarily to its core responsibilities of defence and domestic peace.
Both Dawson and Wittfogel were intent upon warning the post-Christian West that it was in danger of sliding into something akin to an "Asiatic mode of production," "Oriental despotism" or "hydraulic society." Being a post-Marxist secularist, Wittfogel could recommend only a liberal democratic resistance to what really becomes a spiritual movement.
But Dawson knew that some form of religiosity, "its dominant attitude toward life and its ultimate conception of reality," is foundational to every civilisation. In Progress and Religion, he warns of the growing post-Enlightenment apotheosis or religification of science. "The religion of the future will be a kind of neo-paganism which will consist in the worship of the vital forces of nature in place of spiritual abstractions or a transcendent divinity," he wrote. In neo-paganism, scientific or pseudo-scientific laws "will take the place of the system of ritual magic… to bring human life into communion with the cosmic order."
And Dawson predicted all this fully 40 years prior to the full emergence of an environmental movement that now seeks to permit unlimited bureaucratic intervention into ordinary daily life for the sake of "saving the planet."
In this neo-pagan religion of science, there is no room for the dignity of the individual human being. "Humanitarianism is the peculiar possession of a people who have for centuries worshiped the Divine Humanity," Dawson insisted. Humanitarian institutions like free schools, hospitals and charities are its uniquely Christian legacies. And the West must "either consciously return to its historical religious roots, or it will abandon the Christian tradition that is foundational to its ethical and intellectual progress for the last 1,500 years." This will mean, to repeat, a return to something very much more like the merciless astronomy and climatology of the Aztecs and Babylonians. In the rule of scientific neo-paganism, to paraphrase Lenin, the death of a thousand people is merely a statistic.
So the image of a Nazi decked out in archaic priestly robes may be truly prophetic. Many, perhaps even most real climatologists today preserve some scepticism and scientific objectivity toward the cataclysmic prophecies of global warming. But they win no government research grants by saying so. Public deliberations throughout the once-Christian West are now dominated by a bureaucratic-academic combine, committed to propagandising the coming apocalypse and licensing the limitless administrative intervention into daily life.
Mankind must now forcibly be "brought into communion" with the global climate by means of expiatory sacrifices, dictated by a new priestly caste of politicised scientists. Their robes may not be quite so gaudy as Belloq's, but the sacrifices mandated by their eugenic and population control measures may ultimately be just as life-threatening.
Joe Woodard teaches in Calgary.