Modern economy and its premises of ceaseless growth, when compared to an older idea of economy, reveals itself as a form of madness.
Translated by John Bruce Leonard
The following essay is excerpted from Julius Evola’s final book, Recognitions (Arktos, 2017).
Story has it that in the land of an ancient civilization far from Europe, an American expedition, bemoaning the poor competitivity of the native inhabitants who had been recruited for work, believed a suitable means could be found for spurring them on: the Americans doubled the hourly pay. Failure: following this raise, the better part of the workers came to work only half the hours of before. Since the natives held that the original reward was sufficient for the natural needs of their life, they now thought it altogether absurd that they should have to seek more for themselves than that which, on the basis of the new criterion, sufficed for the procuring of those needs.1
This is the antithesis of what we have recently begun to call Stakhanovism.2 This anecdote might act as a testing stone for two worlds, two mindsets, two civilizations, by which one of them might be judged sane and normal, and the other deviant and psychotic.
In referring to a non-European mentality, let no one adduced any commonplaces here, regarding the inertia and the indolence of these races, as compared with the ‘active’ and ‘dynamic’ Western ones. In this, as in other spheres, such objections have no raison d’être: it suffices to detach oneself a moment from ‘modern’ civilization to perceive also in us, in the West, the same conceptions of life, the same attitude, the same esteem of lucre and of work.
Before the advent in Europe of what has officially and significantly been called ‘mercantile economy’ (significantly, because one knows in what account the traditional social hierarchy held the ‘merchant’ and the lender of money), out of which modern capitalism would rapidly develop, it was the fundamental criterion of economy that exterior goods must be subject to a certain measure, that the pursuit of wealth should be excused and licit only as it served to guarantee a subsistence corresponding to one’s state. Subsistence economy counted as the normal economy. This was also the Thomistic conception and later on even the Lutheran conception.3 It was essential that the single individual recognized that he belonged to a given group, that there existed determinate a fixed or limited framework within which he might develop his possibilities, realize his vocation, tend toward a partial, specific perfection. The same thing held in the ancient corporative ethics, wherein the values of personality and quality were emphasized, and wherein, in any case, the quantity of work was ever a function of a determinate level of natural needs. In general, the concept of progress in those times was applied to an essentially interior plane; it did not indicate leaving one’s station to seek lucre and to multiply the quantity of one’s work in order to reach an exterior economic and social position which did not belong to one.
All of these, however, were once perfectly Western viewpoints – the viewpoints of European man, when he was yet sane, not yet bitten by the tarantula, not yet thrall of the insane agitation and the hypnosis of the ‘economy’, which would conduct him into the disorder, the crises and the paroxysms of the current civilization. And today one trumpets this or that system, one seeks this or that palliative – but no one brings the question back to its origin. To recognize that even in economy the primary factors are spiritual factors, that a change of attitude, a true metanoia,4 is the only efficacious means if one would still conceive of halting the slide – this goes beyond the intellect of our technicians, who have by now gathered to proclaim in unison that ‘economy is destiny’.5
But we already know where the road shall lead us upon which man betrays himself, subverts every just hierarchy of values and of interests, concentrates himself on exteriorities, and the quest for gain, ‘production’, and economic factors in general form the predominant motive of his soul. Perhaps Sombart6 better than anyone has analyzed the entire process. It culminates fatally in those forms of high industrial capitalism in which one is condemned to run without rest, leading to an unlimited expansion of production, because every stop would signify immediately retreat, often being forced out and crushed. Whence comes that chain of economic processes which seize the great entrepreneur body and soul, shackling him more totally than the last of his laborers, even as the stream becomes almost autonomous and drags behind it thousands of beings, finally dictating laws to entire peoples and governments. Fiat productio, pereat homo – precisely as Sombart had already written.7
The which reveals, by the way, the backstage work of ‘liberation’ and of American aid in the world. We stand at the fourth of Truman’s points8 – the same Truman who, brimming over with disinterested love, wishes ‘ the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas’ of the earth: in other words: carrying to its term the new barbaric invasions, the brutalization in economic trivia even of those countries which by a happy confluence of circumstances are yet preserved from the bite of the tarantula, are yet preserved in a traditional tenor of life, are yet withheld from that economic and ‘productive’ exploitation which carries us to the bitter end of every possibility for man for nature. The system of the Americans, mutatis mutandis, persists in these commercial companies, which carry cannons along with them in order to ‘persuade’ whomever has no interest whatsoever in commerce…
That ethic epitomized in the principle ‘abstine et substine’9 was a Western one; so was its betrayal in a conception of life which, instead of maintaining need within natural limits toward the pursuit of that which is truly worthy of human striving, takes for its ideal instead the growth and the artificial multiplication of need itself, and also of the means to satisfy this need, with no regard for the growing slavery this must constitute first for the single individual and then for the collective, in accordance with an ineluctable law. No one should marvel that on such a basis there can be no stability, that everything must crumble and the so-called ‘social question’, already prejudged from the start by impossible premises, must intensify to the very point which is desired by communism and Bolshevism…
Moreover, things have gone so far today that any different viewpoint appears ‘anachronistic’, ‘anti-historical’. Beautiful, priceless words! But if ever one were to return to normality, it would become clear that, so far as the individual goes, there is no exterior, ‘economic’ growth worth its price; there is no growth whose seductions one must not absolutely resist, when the counterpart of letting oneself be seduced is the essential crippling of one’s liberty. No price is sufficient to recompense the loss of free space, free breath, such as permit one to find oneself and the being in oneself, and to reach what is possible for one to reach, beyond the conditioned sphere of matter and of the needs of ordinary life.
Nor do matters stand any differently for nations, especially when their resources are limited. Here ‘autarchy’ is an ethical principle, because that which has weight on the scale of values must be identical both for a single individual and for a State. Better to renounce the phantasm of an illusory betterment of the general conditions and to adopt, wherever it is necessary, a system of ‘austerity’,10 which does not yoke itself to the wagon of foreign interests, which does not let itself become embroiled in the global processes of a hegemony and an economic productivity cast into the void. For such processes, in the end, when they find nothing more to grasp on to, will turn against those same individuals who have woken them to life.
Nothing less than this becomes evident to whomever reflects on the ‘moral’ implicit in the simple anecdote recounted at the beginning of this essay. Two worlds, two mindsets, two destinies. Against the ‘tarantula’s bite’ stand all those who yet remember just activity, right effort, what is worthy of pursuit, and fidelity to themselves. Only they are the ‘realizers’, the beings who truly stand on their feet.
1 The source of the story is unknown. As for the title of this chapter, according to an old Italian tradition, the bite of the tarantula supposedly leads to a condition of hysteria and extreme agitation bordering, by certain accounts, on madness. Accordingly the name tarantism was given to this condition, and it was a common condition in the south of Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The tarantella dance takes its origin from this sickness, first because those who were gripped by tarantism felt a desperate need for frenetic physical activity, and later because this very need was formalized into a form of dance which was held to be therapeutic for the disease. In the present case, the furious contemporary desire to work, to be productive, to engage in commercial activity, is likened to this old malady.
2 After Alexey Stakhanov, a Russian miner who became renowned throughout Soviet Russia for his remarkable stamina. He set the world record for coal mining, reportedly mining 227 tons of coal in one day. This record was later disputed by some who believed he had been aided by the Soviet authorities themselves in order to produce propaganda for the workers, but Stakhanov’s name remains to this day crystallized in the Italian language in the term staconovista, meaning a man of tireless work ethic.
3 For the Thomistic conception, see Summa Theologica, II-II Q. 66. For example, he says in Article 2, ‘A more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own’. For Luther’s view, see his tract On Trade and Usury. Toward the beginning of this work he says, ‘Therefore some of the merchants, too, have been awakened, and have become aware that in their trading many a wicked trick and hurtful financial practice is in use, and it must be feared that the word of Ecclesiasticus applies here and that ‘merchants can hardly be without sin’. ’ (Translation Charles M. Jacobs.)
4 From the Ancient Greek μετάνοια, ‘changing one’s mind’ (lit. ‘beyond the mind’). This is a prominent Biblical theme, and is generally translated by the word ‘repentance’. Its original meaning, probably also among the Christians, was a change of heart, a spiritual conversion; and this is clearly the meaning it takes on in Evola’s use.
5 These were the words originally of Walter Rathenau (1867-1922), a Jewish German statesman and diplomat during the Weimer Republic. He was the signee of the Treaty of Rapallo, by which Russia and Germany renounced their territorial claims after World War I, leading to increased trade between the two. For his signature to this document, and for his intellectual ideas, which tended toward socialism, Rathenau was held to be a revolutionary in some circles, and he was assassinated in 1922 by the right-wing Organization Consul.
6 Werner Sombart (1863-1941), a German economist and sociologist. He began as a student of Marxist thought (Engels said he was the only German professor to have understood Marx) but by the end of his life had approached the National-Socialism of the Nazis. Throughout his career he was known for his intrepid consideration of the role that race plays in society. His early connections to Marxism and his later connections to Nazism have sadly blackened his memory, and, as Evola states in Chapter 25 (where he considers certain aspects of Sombart’s thought in greater depth), Sombart ‘is an author worthy of more study than we generally give him’.
7 Latin: ‘Let there be production, though man should perish’. Taken from Sombart’s Der Bourgeois (1913), yet to be translated into English.
8 From President Truman’s famous ‘Point Four Program’, as announced in his inaugural address of January 20, 1949. (The subsequent citations in this chapter are also taken from that address.) This program was purportedly a foreign policy of aiding underdeveloped countries and encouraging their growth and industrial progress. As Evola points out here, it is unlikely that the motivations behind this program were really so altruistic.
9 Latin: ‘endure and abstain’, often translated ‘bear and forebear’. It was a saying of the Greek Stoic Epictetus (c. AD 50-135). Epictetus was born a slave, and his main work, The Discourses, is formed of the statements he made to his pupis, which were transcribed and compiled by his student Arrian. Abstine et substine in many ways epitomizes the Stoic philosophy which later had such influence over Roman civilization: to tolerate the ills that come upon us and to refrain from forming attachments to things over which we have no control.
10 Evola here uses the English word ‘austerity’. Quotation marks are Evola’s.