Postmodernity and Rise of Social Communions

Yesterday’s latest Entry of Work-Standard Accounting Practices, “Managerial Cost Accounting,” showcased two accounting methods associated with Eugen Schmalenbach. Schmalenbach was a well-known German economist within German academia who is unknown nowadays, even though his contributions to accounting had gone on to influence the economic organizations of the European Union (EU) and the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA). He was also influential in the accounting practices of the German Reich in the early 20th century. Yet his brother, Herman Schmalenbach, is far more obscure as his existence was oftentimes recognized in passing footnotes and his contributions to the German Konservative Revolution supplanted by its more well-known members. Most of his bibliography remains untranslated, with the last major English translations done nearly half a century ago in the late 1970s.  

While researching Eugen Schmalenbach, I dug deeper into the background of his brother, whose works were especially critical of the prevailing early 20th century German sociologists such as Max Weber and Ferdinand Tönnies. Herman found the modernist, rational social structures in Weber’s descriptions of the modern world to be alienating, while he deemed the “Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft Distinction” of Tönnies to be too restrictive to account for why there can be disagreements among members of a Gemeinschaft. Both criticisms were directed in favor of an entirely different conception of the Individual, the Self, that would become relevant to discussions of Postmodernity towards the end of the 20th century.

The rise of modernity, in spite of giving paramount importance to the Self, has instead created the conditions for social alienation, atomization, and exclusion from the Totality. For what is the “Totality” if not the combined will of an entire nation and its religious congregations, people’s communities, social ranks, professional councils and guilds, political parties and economic organizations, communities of families, and others? If the Totality is not a “Civil Society” in the sense that it does not represents a formless mass of individuals bound to a shared Social Contract between Private Citizens and Parliament, what would further distinguish it from the “National Community” that is meant to be embodied by the term “Volksgemeinschaft?”

Based on the available information that I have gathered on Herman Schmalenbach, I reached some important conclusions akin to a missing link between The Third Place and Work-Standard Accounting Practices. In essence, the Totality is only as strong as the social bonds of the social groupings that constitute the Totality. What binds the Self to any one of those social groupings is of course the “Bund,” which has several connotations in German such as “federation,” “league,” “band,” and “union.” The specific definition that Schmalenbach chose in this particular conception of the “Bund” is “Communion.” For the rest of this post, I will be referring to the Bund as a Communion.  

The Bünde for Schmalenbach represents a Communion whose members are bound to a shared identity, interests, values, and perspectives. They are comprised of Selves drawn from every conceivable part of the Totality. Such Communions differ from that of, say, a “Subculture” in that it is an authentic and voluntary gathering uninfluenced by external factors. In fact, the search for a sense of self-identity and belonging is integral to the formation of a Communion. The concept of Federalism, like in American or German Federalism, is a political formation of the Communion. Even Hamiltonianism itself unconsciously recognized this implication when it advocated for the Constitution and the necessity for America to become “these United States” in The Federalist Papers.

Some notable examples of Communions also exist in the digital realm. In the 2020s, one might be inclined to think of the various Discord servers and Subreddits as digital manifestations of the Communion. Twenty years ago, one might have also said the same thing about the discussion boards and chatroom groups where people once established online communities that rose and fell over the years. The Communion is only as strong as the dedication of its members. Anyone who joins a Communion is expected to support the Communion in some way or another. At the very least, it involves adherence to its values and contributing to its longevity. In return, the Communion provides them with rooted sense of self-identity.

But between the current state of Federalism as an genuine ideology in itself and the rise of social media applications, the growing prevalence of such Communions for Schmalenbach signify the early signs of a period after Modernity. Instead of referring to it as “Postmodernity” like Foucault, Habermas, and others near the end of the 20th century, Schmalenbach as early as 1922 was talking about a “Late Period.”   

The late period ultimately follows the modem period. The modem period is very gradually (again, not continuously) transformed into it. Only the most outstanding of its earliest marks evidence to us its emergence. Yet antiquity provides the insights […]. The world economy and world trade of the world empire, for which the age of society has provided the formative conditions, have meanwhile meshed together in greater and greater degree all the peoples of the Earth. Torn from every mothering environment, individuals wander homelessly through the cities of the world: the amorphous mass of a chaotic amalgam of people formed out of atomised, pulverised individuals, who, however, are held together less and less by the society code of honour and who are set against one another in cold isolation. Moreover, they are uprooted mentally and psychically, no longer satisfied by the rationality of the systems, driven along by the boredom from their desperate frustrations to ‘something else’ which manifests itself in avid religious desires […] A principled exoticism and an arbitrary modernism are combined, and the mishmash is brewed as a religious syncretism […] In this way hearts are merged in the blissful sobbing of salvation found in brotherhoods and cults of all kinds, frequently to be reduced in a short time to flotsam and cast out in other directions – where they find similarly harassed souls in this over-populated world with whom they can join together in other communions […] Status groups are split asunder. The people are mixed together as they experience the highest raptures of the heart, uplifting inspiration, and sacrificial surrender, even in the same minds and at the same time. Yet whether positive or negative, these experiences are all smoldering surges of feeling, affective-emotional – the mentality is communionlike and the associations are communionlike.”

I have no idea if people realize this or not, but the above text would not be too out of place if it was written anytime within the last half century. What Schmalenbach was describing as early as 1922 was the early beginnings of Postmodernity.

“The comrades of Communion [Bund] have nothing at all to do with one another in the beginning. The Communion is originally established when they meet each other […] The experiences that give rise to Communion are individual experiences. While it appears here that the communion is closer to Society [Gesellschaft], it approaches Community [Gemeinschaft] after it has been established.”

Put another way, the loss of Community in the State of Total Mobilization, whether by Civil Society or by the Totality, is compensated by the sheer ease by which Communions can be readily established. People can now communicate with each other across vast distances and collaborate as members of a Communion. However, such Communions do not always come into being because people will not always know that they exist or have yet to be established. When they are established, they will only be sustained by the people who affiliate themselves with the Communion.

Is the Totality defined as the collection of various social groups whose connection to the Self is through Communions between themselves and the Self? Are there Selves within the State of Total Mobilization who are creating their own Communions, coming and going over the years? Would this be a practical sociological model to understand contemporary political life in the 21st century?

Categories: Philosophy

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