Written in 1932, just before the fall of the Weimar Republic and on the eve of the Nazi accession to power, Ernst Jünger’s The Worker: Dominion and Form articulates a trenchant critique of bourgeois liberalism and seeks to identify the form characteristic of the modern age. The dystopian novel predicted that masks would become commonplace in order to eradicate individuality and enforce conformity 88 years before the fake pandemic of COVID-19 made it the ‘new normal‘. Jünger’s analyses, written in critical dialogue with Marx, are inspired by a profound intuition of the movement of history and an insightful interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
Martin Heidegger considered Jünger “the only genuine follower of Nietzsche,” singularly providing “an interpretation which took shape in the domain of that metaphysics which already determines our epoch, even against our knowledge; this metaphysics is Nietzsche’s doctrine of the ‘will to power.’” In The Worker, Jünger examines some of the defining questions of that epoch: the nature of individuality, society, and the state; morality, justice, and law; and the relationships between freedom and power and between technology and nature.
This work, appearing in its entirety in English translation for the first time, is an important contribution to debates on work, technology, and politics by one of the most controversial German intellectuals of the twentieth century. Not merely of historical interest, The Worker carries a vital message for contemporary debates about world economy, political stability, and equality in our own age, one marked by unsettling parallels to the 1930s.
With face masks now becoming a mandatory part of the “new normal,” the enforcement measures to make people wear them, by both agents of the state and members of the general public, are becoming more dehumanizing and draconian. This is precisely the scenario envisaged by enigmatic German author Ernst Jünger in his 1932 classic.
As Thomas Crew details in his article The Dystopian Age of the Mask, the “eradication of all individuality” is a running theme of all dystopian literature. This is expressed by George Orwell in 1984 when he describes the masses as, “a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans…three hundred million people all with the same face.” Crew explains that this theme is dominant in Jünger’s The Worker, where, “The uniformity of the new age is symbolized…by the sudden proliferation of the mask in contemporary society.”
“It is no coincidence,” he writes, “that the mask is again beginning to play a decisive role in public life. It is appearing in many different ways … be it as a gas mask, with which they are trying to equip entire populations; be it as a face mask for sport and high speeds, seen on every racing driver; be it as a safety mask for workplaces exposed to radiation, explosions, or narcotic substances. We can assume”, he continues, with an eerie prescience, “that the mask will come to take on functions that we can today hardly imagine.”
Crew explains how the public has been brainwashed to believe that the continuation of life, no matter how stifled, atomized and undignified it may be, is the only consideration.
“Given the sudden ubiquity of the face mask in 2020, across the entire globe and in an increasing number of social contexts, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this is precisely the sort of development Jünger had in mind. Our readiness to obscure the face reflects the dehumanising tendencies that, for Jünger, underlie the modern period. It represents another stage in the degradation of the individual that became explicit in the First World War. Whether as a scrap of material on the battlefield or a cog in the machine of the wartime economy, the modern age has a habit of reducing the human being to a functional object. Everything “non-essential” – everything, that is, that makes us human – is blithely discarded.”
As documented in the video below, the level of compliance that governments and the media have been able to indoctrinate people to embrace means there is little need for police officers and security officials to enforce mask wearing. A cowed public, whipped up into a frenzied lust for obedience, will do it for them.
The book aims to sketch what he regards as the coming new world order – an order defined by a fundamentally new type of human. Having dispensed with the liberal values of the past and embraced his fate in the factories and on the battlefields of the early twentieth century, the hallmark of the new man is an uncanny resemblance – both in body and soul – to the machine. Born to human parents, Jünger’s “worker” is nevertheless a child of the industrial age.
Following the dystopias of his contemporaries, the prime casualty of this new age is also the individual. For the logic of the machine permits no difference. Whether the natural world or the human mind, Jünger argues that everything is increasingly defined by “a certain emptiness and uniformity”.
Whether the call for social isolation, perpetual “vigilance”, or mandatory face masks, the measures of COVID-19 represent more than an assault on liberty. They implicitly enjoin us to sacrifice our humanity in order to save our lives. Even if this Rubicon has not yet been crossed, it is worth thinking about the point at which it is. For perhaps there is more to life than its mere continuation. Perhaps “the object”, as Winston Smith well knew, “is not to stay alive but to stay human”.