In Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, the naive protagonist, Hans Castorp, serves as the rope in a tug-of-war between two ideologues, Naphtha and Settembrini, each of whom wants to shape the young man in his own image. Settembrini is a well-meaning humanist and cosmopolitan, an heir to the nineteenth-century tradition of liberal rationalism; everything he says is morally admirable. Naphtha, on the other hand, is a proto-fascist, an irrationalist and totalitarian who claims that the future belongs to mass movements and their cruel leaders; everything he says is dire and ominous. The problem is that Settembrini is a weak man spouting tired platitudes, while Naphtha has the ferocious charisma of a true believer. What is a liberal to do, Mann asks, when the devil has all the good tunes?
This question was prophetic when Mann posed it in 1924; now, almost a hundred years later, it feels frighteningly relevant once again. Liberals in Europe and America are in a justified panic. Writers like Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and Yascha Mounk are issuing urgent warnings about the return of populism and nationalism, the decay of international institutions, the pollution of the public sphere by lies and propaganda. They are completely right; meanwhile, the public continues to vote for Brexit in the UK, Victor Orban in Hungary, the Law and Justice Party in Poland — and, of course, Trump in the United States. As in the 1930s, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Rob Riemen, author of the earnest new book To Fight Against This Age (Norton), undoubtedly belongs on the right side of this political and cultural battle. As the founder of the Netherlands’ Nexus Institute, he has spent his life bringing liberal intellectuals together to talk about the great problems of the day. His previous book, also a short tract, had the unimpeachable title Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal. Alas, To Fight Against This Age suggests that Riemen has not found a way to overcome Settembrini-ism: for all his rectitude, he leaves the reader feeling depressed and discouraged. One even begins to wonder if this is how all liberals and cosmopolitans sound to their enemies — rhetorical, simplistic, and self-righteous.
To Fight Against This Age is a pamphlet-length volume made up of two parts. The first is an essay, originally published in 2010, titled “The Eternal Return of Fascism”; the second is a parable or fable titled “The Return of Europa,” in which we overhear a kind of idealized Nexus symposium, where a group of wise men debate the future of Europe. Both pieces were written by a European for a European audience, and take for granted a set of beliefs about the value and nobility of the European idea that outsiders, including Americans, might greet with a certain amount of skepticism. Essentially, Riemen believes there is nothing wrong with Europe that the best traditions of Europe can’t cure; and his book is a tract or sermon recalling Europeans to the “Judeo-Christian tradition” and “spiritual, universal values” that alone can save them from creeping fascism and/or the dominion of technology.
Riemen knows that, in today’s Europe, anyone who invokes the Judeo-Christian tradition is likely to be seen as a conservative, and specifically as an Islamophobe. That is why he takes pains to distance himself from figures like the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, for whom European values are best expressed by hating Muslim immigrants. “In the Netherlands,” Riemen writes, “what the Party for Freedom [Wilders’s party] actually offers is the shameless opposite of the Judeo-Christian and humanist traditions: vulgar materialism, oppressive nationalism, xenophobia, ammunition for resentment, a deep aversion to the arts and the exercise of spiritual values, a suffocating spiritual bigotry, a fierce resistance to the European spirit, and continuous lies as politics.”
Western values, Riemen believes, need to be defended against their defenders. After all, Hitler came to power promising to protect European values against the menace of Bolshevism. But if fascism is on the march in Europe today, as Riemen believed in 2010, and as there is even better reason to fear today, the question is what makes it so attractive. What can liberals offer the public to defuse fascism’s appeal? One obvious answer to this question might be economic: fascism is a version of plutocracy, while social democracy aims to empower individual citizens. Perhaps there is a connection between the erosion of social-democratic rights over the last two generations and the rise of desperate, angry people eager to find a scapegoat for their problems.
Riemen is probably in sympathy with this view — he writes acidly about the “business elite” that has “poisoned society with the idea that earning a lot of money is the most important thing in life.” But even this suggests that it is ideas, not money or power, that really concerns him. Fittingly, for an intellectual, he believes that the cure to Europe’s problems is intellectual. It involves such things as “spiritual and moral training,” “moral and cultural foundations,” “living in truth,” “doing what is right,” “creating beauty,” and other such radiantly vague phrases.
None of this is politically reactionary, but you don’t have to read too far before you realize that it is culturally reactionary, in the strict sense. Riemen believes that Europe once had a rich and ennobling culture, under the tutelage of great thinkers and artists, and that it can only survive by returning to that elite cultural regime. The real source of fascism, he believes, is what he calls “a kitsch society,” one in which “nothing is absolute, nothing is eternal either: everything is finite and transitory.” In general, he thinks, people are content with pleasure where they should be striving for nobility of spirit. Europe needs to go back to “the humanistic teachings of Socrates and Spinoza.”
These are fascinating examples, almost Freudian slips in the context of Riemen’s argument; what they actually signify is the opposite of what he thinks they prove. For Socrates, of course, was put to death by the people of Athens, and Spinoza, after being excommunicated by the Jews of Amsterdam, saw his writing banned and censored by the Christian authorities. Far from being the founders of European culture, they were outsiders, marginal figures, even saboteurs of European culture, which was — then as now — dominated by the values Riemen derides as “kitsch.” Tellingly, Riemen never gives an actual date for the era when Europe was ostensibly guided by “spiritual values.”
In the second section of the book, Riemen personifies what he thinks of as the true, lost Europe in the figure of Europa, from Greek mythology. If “Princess Europa” returned to her namesake today, she would find that “from this Europe, the European spirit has gone.” The only way to woo her back, Riemen goes on to suggest, is to refuse to bow down to the false idol of science and go back to worshipping “spiritual values,” such as “truth, goodness, beauty, love, and patience.” Who could argue with this? But precisely because they are inarguable, such calls to virtue constitute an ideological mystification of the most naive kind. To really understand where we are and where we’re headed, we need actual thinking, which is usually uncomfortable (as Socrates loved to point out). To Fight Against This Age, despite its title, is more lullaby than call to arms.