A Prophet Against Anonymous Dictatorship

“If you do not watch out, what the dictators wanted to achieve in a few years will materialize in fifty or a hundred; the result will be the same: the State will have conquered all, absorbed all; you will have escaped the totalitarian demi-gods only to let yourselves slip slowly into the glue of an anonymous dictatorship.”–George Bernanos, A Letter to the English, 1943

Bernanos spent a lifetime criticizing the mediocrity of modern society – its fixation on order without purpose or belief. Such, he argued, was the pursuit of many parties on both the “left” and the “right.” His independent mindset, for example, allowed him to champion the rights of workers while also understanding (contra the Marxists) that the worst forms of poverty are spiritual deprivation. Admittedly the French writer was often better at description than prescription. His Luddite idealism seems impracticable, but not the realization that our enslavement to technology – which he foresaw long before the current Googlearchy – is due to a philosophical error: the desire to compensate materially for our moral shortcomings.

Just two years after the Allied triumph over Hitler, the ever vigilant Bernanos could speak of an ongoing “war of states against societies, of States against patries [countries]…. The modern state has slowly reached this phase of growth, beyond which it can only be a fantastic instrument of constraint and enslavement. The state is now a technique in action for the dispossession of real men and for the profit of the future robot.”

His biographer, Thomas Molnar, provides further context: “Bernanos was not an aggressive nationalist like Maurras. With Maurras, nationalism was an ideology, a policy, a plan of action; with Bernanos, patriotism was a supernatural duty—a duty to remain human and linked to God, to continue living by bread and faith.” To be a patriot was to be “essentially open towards others, not closed as the Maurrassian doctrine implies.”

Bernanos “considered the world… as the stage of the struggle between good and evil, without, of course, identifying anybody or any category as the carrier, beyond forgiveness and redemption, of the total burden of evil. In this way, Bernanos did not believe, as [the anti-Semitic] Maurras did, that certain people and races are forever sick and guilty….”

Is the alternative a “rage against the machine,” which only seems to perpetuate the dilemma? Is the free man, Molnar asks, “a mere saboteur, a bitter opponent who finds pleasure, however justified, in placing obstacles in the way of the machine’s heavy feet, in delaying the inevitable march of the Technical State?” Or is he the saint of Bernanos’ novels, possessing “an inexhaustible reservoir of fighting spirit, but also of insight and charity, used not for malice and destruction, but for opposing… freedom to slavery, love to routine?”

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