Compendium: A Reading of Ernst Jünger’s Total Mobilization

It is understandable for the term ‘Total Mobilization’ to convey imagery of military preparations for an impending war. It is also inevitable for the term itself to conjure the notion of sustaining a war effort against a common enemy. This is the argument proffered by academic authors who have read and reviewed the 1930 essay of the same name by Ernst Jünger. Jünger wrote “Total Mobilization” from the perspective where he was most familiar with, which was the technological changes on military combat during and after the First World War. In essence, the real focus of the essay is the role of technology in shaping everyday life within both peacetime and wartime contexts.     

In order to clarify this situation, let us here introduce the concept of Total Mobilization: the times are long gone when it sufficed to send a hundred thousand enlisted subjects under reliable leadership into battleas we find, say, in Voltaire’s Candide; and when, if His Majesty lost a battle, the citizen’s first duty was to stay quiet. Nonetheless, even in the second half of the nineteenth century, conservative cabinets could still prepare, wage, and win wars which the people’s representatives were indifferent towards or even against. To be sure, this presupposed a close relation between crown and army; a relation that had only undergone a superficial change through the new system of universal conscription and which still essentially belonged to the patriarchal world. It was also based on a fixed calculation of armaments and costs, which made war seem like an exceptional, but in no sense limitless, expenditure of available forces and supplies. In this respect, even general mobilization had the character of a partial measure.

Partial Mobilization thus corresponds to the essence of monarchy. The latter oversteps its bounds to the extent that it is forced to make the abstract forms of spirit, money, “folk”in short, the forces of growing national democracya part of the preparation for war. Looking back we can now say that complete renunciation of such participation was quite impossible. The manner in which it was incorporated [into political life] represents the real essence of nineteenthcentury statecraft. These particular circumstances explain Bismarck’s maxim that politics is the “art of the possible.”

Seen in this light, Jünger differentiated between the ‘Partial Mobilization’ that preceded World War I and the Total Mobilization that succeeded it. Note the peculiar description that Jünger gave for Total Mobilization:

We can now pursue the process by which the growing conversion of life into energy, the increasingly fleeting content of all binding ties in deference to mobility, gives an evermore radical character to the act of mobilizationwhich in many states was the exclusive right of the crown, needing no countersignature. The events causing this are numerous: with the dissolution of the estates and the curtailing of the nobility’s privileges, the concept of a warrior caste also vanishes; the armed defense of the state is no longer exclusively the duty and prerogative of the professional soldier, but the responsibility of everyone who can bear arms. Likewise, because of the huge increase in expenses, it is impossible to cover the costs of waging war on the basis of a fixed war budget; instead, a stretching of all possible credit, even a taxation of the last pfennig [penny] saved, is necessary to keep the machinery in motion.

In the same way, the image of war as armed combat merges into the more extended image of a gigantic labor process [Arbeitsprozesses]. In addition to the armies that meet on the battlefields, originate the modern armies of commerce and transport, foodstuffs, the manufacture of armaments the army of labor in general. In the final phase, which was already hinted at toward the end of the last war, there is no longer any movement whatsoeverbe it that of the homeworker at her sewing machine without at least indirect use for the battlefield. In this unlimited marshaling of potential energies, which transforms the warring industrial countries into volcanic forges, we perhaps find the most striking sign of the dawn of the age of labor [Arbeitszeitalter]. It makes the World War a historical event superior in significance to the French Revolution. In order to deploy energies of such proportion, fitting one’s swordarm no longer suffices; for this is a mobilization [Rustung] that requires extension to the deepest marrow, life’s finest nerve. Its realization is the task of Total Mobilization: an act which, as if through a single grasp of the control panel, conveys the extensively branched and densely veined power supply of modern life towards the great current of martial energy.

It can be surmised from the preceding passages that Jünger was referring to the emerging precedent behind the appearance of Command and Planned Economies within the paradigm of Western Civilization. He traced the historical origins back to the First World War, during which he had witnessed its development as a soldier in the trenches. Its implications during the conflict would later manifest in the ensuing conditions of peacetime. Far more than a mentality or a fleeting historical moment, Total Mobilization refers to the devotion of an entire nation-state’s economic and financial energies toward a common goal. That goal can range from the accumulation of Kapital as in Liberal Capitalism or the execution of a Five-Year Plan as in Marxism-Leninism:

In this regard, we can introduce examples such as the increasing curtailment of “individual liberty,” a privilege that, to be sure, has always been questionable. Such an assault takes place in Russia and Italy and then here in Germany; its aim is to deny the existence of anything that is not a function of the state. We can predict a time when all countries with global aspirations must take up the process, in order to sustain the release of new forms of power. France’s evaluation of the balance of power from the perspective of energie potentielle belongs in this context, as does the model America has offeredalready in peacetimefor cooperation between industry and the army. German war literature raised issues touching on the very essence of armament, forcing the general public to make judgments about matters of war (if somewhat belatedly and in reality anticipating the future). For the first time, the Russian “fiveyear plan” presented the world with an attempt to channel the collective energies of a great empire into a single current. Seeing how economic theory turns volteface is here instructive. The “planned economy,” as one of the final results of democracy, grows beyond itself into a general unfolding of power. We can observe this shift in many events of our age. The great surging forth of the masses thereby reaches a point of crystallization.

Thus, under the conditions of Total Mobilization, everyone assumes not the lifestyles of businessmen, but those of the Arbeiter (Worker). The “Arbeiter” is at best more characteristic of a Jungian archetype attuned to the conditions of Total Mobilization, capable of exerting control over the technologies driving the changes Jünger saw. Total Mobilization is not driven by specific ideologies but by the inherent nature by which technologies ‘revolutionize’ the world. It affects Liberal Capitalist and Socialist regimes alike since they both rely on similar variants of the same technologies.  

We could cite many such examples. It suffices simply to consider our daily life, with its inexorability and merciless discipline, its smoking, glowing districts, the physics and metaphysics of its commerce, its motors, airplanes, and burgeoning cities. With a pleasuretinged horror, we sense that here, not a single atom is not in motionthat we are profoundly inscribed in this raging process. Total Mobilization is far less consummated than it consummates itself; in war and peace, it expresses the secret and inexorable claim to which our life in the age of masses and machines subjects us. It thus turns out that each individual life becomes, ever more unambiguously, the life of a worker; and that, following the wars of knights, kings, and citizens, we now have wars of workers. The first great twentiethcentury conflict has offered us a presentiment of both their rational structure and their mercilessness.

From those conclusions, Jünger insisted that Total Mobilization tends to exert a far greater effect on Liberal Capitalist Market and Mixed Economies. The result was a stripping away of the Humanist, Modernist and Meliorist values definitive of Liberal Capitalist notions of “Progress.” The Progress that comes from adopting “a linear model of conception,” which Oswald Spengler criticized in The Decline of the West, is also derived from the same worldview. What Jünger saw in Total Mobilization under Liberal Capitalism was a gradual stripping away of the Jungian masks, the personae, behind everything which made that ideology so appealing in the first place.

This is understandable because Liberal Capitalism prides itself on advancing the interests of individual rights to the detriment of everything else. The occurrence of Total Mobilization, which Jünger has maintained for decades throughout his life as an inevitably gradual historical process, undermines its ideological consistency. What prevents any Liberal Capitalist from advocating for Total Mobilization is either the full self-awareness of what Total Mobilization itself brings, the onset of peacetime, or the precipice of regression into stagnation. In any case, Total Mobilization reveals how “barbaric” and “inhumane” this Progress truly is.   

In many cases the humanitarian mask has almost been stripped away, replaced by a halfgrotesque, half-barbaric fetishism of the machine, a naive cult of technique; this occurs particularly where there is no direct, productive relation to those dynamic energies for whose destructive, triumphal course longrange artillery and bombloaded fighter squadrons represent only the martial expression. Simultaneously, esteem for quantity [Massen] is increasing: quantity of assent, quantity of public opinion has become the decisive factor in politics. Socialism and nationalism in particular are the two great millstones between which progress pulverizes what is left of the old world, and eventually itself. For a period of more than a hundred years, the masses, blinded by the optical illusion of the franchise, were tossed around like a ball by the “right” and “left.” It always seemed that one side offered refuge from the other’s claims.

Today everywhere the reality of each side’s identity is becoming more and more apparent; even the dream of freedom is  disappearing as if under a pincers’ iron grasp. The movements of the uniformly molded masses, trapped in the snare set by the worldspirit, comprise a great and fearful spectacle. Each of these movements leads to a sharper, more merciless grasp: forms of compulsion stronger than torture are at work here; they are so strong, that human beings welcome them joyfully. Behind every exit, marked with the symbols of happiness, lurk pain and death. Happy is he alone who steps armed into these spaces.

The implications of what Jünger realized over the course of writing the essay would later become a foray into understanding the archetype of Total Mobilization. This figure, the Arbeiter, was the focus of a 1932 book entitled, Der Arbeiter. A reading of Der Arbeiter’s most important passages in relation to the broader message of Total Mobilization is beyond the focus of this entry into the Compendium. The same is also true for the polar opposite of the Arbeiter, the “Anarch,” from Jünger’s 1977 novel, Eumeswil.   



Categories: Compendium, Philosophy, War

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