My musings on different political topics relevant to America today.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Hayek, Hipsters, and Nazis

I was reading Hayek, a libertarian philosopher/economist/sociologist, because as of late I have been seriously questioning the basic assumptions of my political philosophy.  Therefore I have decided to start reading various thinkers of different political persuasions.  However, the funny thing was that while reading "Individualism and Economic Order" I came across this passage that struck me violently. The author while discussing individualism, whom is German, discusses his first encounter with English and American contemporaries:

 "I remember well how surprised and even shocked I was myself when as a young student, on my first contact with English and American contemporaries, I discovered how much they were disposed to conform in all externals to common usage rather than, as seemed natural to me, to be proud to be different and original in most respects...Again and again you will find the same surprise about this tendency toward voluntary conformity and see it contrasted with the ambition of the young German to develop an "original personality," which in every respect expresses what he has come to regard as right and true.  This cult of the distinct and different individuality has, of course, deep roots in the German intellectual tradition."

........sounds to me like he was describing Hipsters!  I could barely believe what I was reading.  Keep in mind this was written in the extremely early 40's, while the goose stepping Nazis ruled Germany.  I could hardly believe that the land of goose stepping Nazis could possibly have been the source of Hipsterism.

In a way it makes sense.  Germany in the 20's was notoriously known for having thrown off the yoke of all past traditions and to have fully embraced "modernity" and "individualism".  It rejected all that came before the first War, believing that all of it is what threw the nation into the "Great War" in the first place.  Many Germans embraced a "YOLO" lifestyle you might say.  Living as fast as they could cause you never knew when a day might be your last.  Also being unhinged from the past, tradition, and religion, many Germans turned to a ultra rationalistic individualism in which Reason reigned supreme.  Essentially everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
Dude from 20's era German movie that looks like a Hipster...
in fact he looks strangely like the hipster in the other picture.

The problem with that was that there was a lack of conformity.  Yes I said it, a lack of conformity.  As Hayek mentioned above, he was surprised that the Americans and British, so enamored with individualism themselves, would be so conformist in dress and appearance.   However, he goes on that they were dedicated to a different breed of individualism, theirs focused on the individual as an actor in society that must make the best with the limited information he has, while the German individualism placed infinite confidence in the individual conscious to Reason (with a capital R).  The two types of individualism lead to very different conclusions.  The British version lead to a degree of conformity because it was practical for the functioning of society, while the German version lead to extreme differentiation.  Many Germans, trying to attain perfection, went whichever direction their own, and only their own, Reason took them.  Therefore extreme differences in opinion, dress, etc. was inevitable.

The extreme differentiation led to a chaotic condition in German society where different factions were absolutely convinced that they were right, and that their way was the only way (sound familiar at all?).  Since their own Reason was supreme, discussion was not necessary, they already knew they were right.  However such a condition is not very workable for a democracy.   In a democracy the people must be willing to work together to a degree.  If compromise is not an option and is seen as evil, then its inevitable that democracy cannot work.  In this case only a absolute despot can impose order, since society is so fragmented.  His one particular view that he believes is absolutely right, will have to be shoved down the throats of everyone else, all of whom believe that their view is absolutely right.

From extreme individualism to extreme conformity
Thus the extremely individualistic and rational Weimar Republic (the name of the German republic in the 20's) morphed into the extremely conformist and irrational Nazi Regime.  Everyone believed they were right, but this absolute trust in individual reason led to absolute chaos, the only remedy was absolute dictatorship.

There is my history lesson.  Now please keep in mind that is only one element to the story, I do not claim that this was the only factor in the rise of Nazi Germany.  It was multi-faceted for sure, but looking at it from this angle gives an interesting perspective on our own society.  Hipsters are just one example of the extreme social differentiation that has taken place in our country.  We take "just be yourself" to such an extreme that we don't believe that we should have to change for anyone.  Even though we all do conform very much so to most societal norms, we still hold on a pedestal the supreme individual.  We believe nothing is more sacrosanct than the individual will, just like pre Nazi Germany. Thus we hold on high individuals that we agree with such as Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, as if their individual will was what shaped America into what it should be.  Its also explains why we so utterly and completely villainize those we disagree with politically, afterall we are all absolutely right.

However I would like to offer some hope as well.  Americans nowadays do not hold their own individual Reason as high as the pre Nazi German did.  Back in the day Reason and rationalism were held up as supreme, but nowadays its tolerance.  Most people, especially amongst the younger generation (the millenials), are much more humble about their own opinions, allowing room for much more finesse and doubt.  It would seem that at least in one category society is drifting away from the conditions for absolute despotism.  Nevertheless its hard to imagine this trend continuing indefinitely, because those that are more humble in their beliefs tend to get steamrolled by those assertive and confrontational (just look at Vladimir Lenin, seriously, perfect example, read a biography on the dude).  One can only wait for what is to come.  In any case it will be interesting to see how a society that is both extremely reliant on individual reason but is also extremely post modern and relativist will function in the near future.

P.S. just fyi I am not hating on Hipsters.  I just found Hayek's description of German students strangely like how one would describe a Hipster.  However I mentioned in the bottom paragraph that there is a very key difference between the two groups, mainly that Hipsters are tolerant and relativist in outlook while the German students Hayek was describing believed in the absolute ability of individual reason to find the truth.

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