The New War and the Crisis in Western Culture


The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused dismay in Europe and in the Western world. Due to the peculiar characteristics of European culture and its progressive affirmation in the world, Western man thought he had by now emancipated himself from the violence of armed conflict; he believes he can contain the destructive side of the conflict by confining it within the economic sphere. The text tries to identify the reasons for this belief, which the author considers an illusion.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially in its early days, was a trauma to the European conscience. This can be guessed, among the various other signs, if we consider the weeks that preceded it. Despite the evidence of Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian borders and what American intelligence had anticipated, a large part of European public opinion and governments had not wanted to believe that it would happen: perhaps one could trust the Russian declarations claiming that they were simple military maneuvers. The most common argument was that it was not convenient for Putin. And in fact, if you think about it today, it didn’t suit him: neither from a strategic-military point of view, nor from a political one, much less from an economic one. Completely incomprehensible then, under certain parameters, the Russian aggression whose intentions aimed to relaunch, with an unpredictable move and with unpredictable consequences, the tarnished image of Russia as a great power. Hence the bewilderment.

Only a few decades ago Europe experienced a bloody war, that of the Balkans – think of the Srebrenica massacre – which for its ferocity recalled the darkest pages of the Second World War. But that war (not completely over, yet, if you look at the outbreaks and tensions in Kosovo) – was soon removed. Why, then, has the Russian aggression in Ukraine been such a rude awakening? And what does all this tell us? Will another crisis open, or rather is it the last episode of a long crisis that has been going through Western societies for decades? And what exactly is to be understood by “crisis” – an overused term that by now means little? (Even words grow old, wear out, “suffer” from the experiences they undergo, e.g., from the rhetorical spaces they cross, for example, those words led to the festive slaughterhouse of advertising inserts, where they are torn to pieces.)

Broadly speaking, we can say that in the meantime, in some large social strata and in certain groups of “intelligentsia”, there has developed the belief that in Europe there was no room for war conflicts – of course in a spurious way, for different reasons that would take long to analyse here. This is precisely because of the course – social, economic, political, and cultural – taken by Western civilization (of which Europe is the heart) in its historical evolution, which reaches a sort of completion at the end of the cold war, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In other words, there has been established the confidence of being able to host the conflict by containing it within an exclusively economic dimension, within the framework made up of the interweaving of liberalism, which recognizes and affirms certain individual rights and freedoms, and democracy, which in turn guarantees a certain participation (mediated by the principle of representation) to political power. Our future and, gradually, that of the entire planet, would end up taking on these features, in which war irreversibly changes into something archaic. In the lines of this framework, the scientific and, by direct extension, technical-economic progress, its internal ratio is shown, is translated in this shift from the space of armed conflict that now, in this renewed Aufklärung, has become brutal and violent, to the space governed by the rational calculation and prevision of the economic work. Only in these terms is there a conceivable conflict – in its proper sense (from concipere) of something that is taken-welcomed-understood. This change would precisely testify to the superiority of that ratio, and its final success, which certainly contemplates, contains, and foresees indeed a polytheism of values or rather, presupposes it, as is taught by the masters of European sociological thought, from Simmel to Weber.

Certainly, the world is still run by the primitive, bloody version of the conflict, but in other places: Africa, the Middle East, Asia. The much-mistreated text by Fukuyama about the end of history basically did nothing but reproduce this awareness, it was a mirror of the mutation that had taken place in the idea that Western man (in a broad sense of the term, not in that of a certain intellectual elite) was self-made. Confirmed, finally, by the progressive imposition of the western lifestyle as canonical. The “normal” life of homo economicus has become, in many respects, normative.                                                                

This vision that sees the West as a sort of conscious, rational avant-garde that will sooner or later be joined by the peoples of other parts of the planet is dramatically far from the great reflection expressed by Weber (but also in Thomas Mann’s Considerations of an Impolitic, and even more, if possible, by the disenchantment of Musil’s man “without qualities” and by Wittgenstein’s reflections on ethics), who in the first decades of the twentieth century tried to put a barrier, through the ethos of the intellectual at work in the field of research and of politics (work meant Beruf, task-vocation) to the undisputed domination of the technical-economic, of its “instrumental” rationality devoted to profit and to an indefinite “growth”. Indeed, in this idea – in the idea of the coveted reduction of the conflict to its declination in economic terms as an end imposed by human rationality – we actually perceive the removal of the tragic sense of that reflection, a sort of parodistic conversion of the hope-aspiration of an ethical resistance of the intellectual and of his knowledge (which feeds the mobile constellation of the various scientific disciplines) to its being a mere function of the productive apparatus. [1]

What lies at the root of this illusion, which clearly depicts a sort of “happy” absorption of the political – a theatre where the ever-possible of stasis is renewed, with its lacerations and bloody clashes, or of the resurgence of wars between nations – in the economic sphere? The question evokes the vexata quaestio about the real relationship between the two spheres. Then: should we wish for such a subsumption? And is it possible? The resurgence of populistic nationalisms throughout Europe – a visceral, narrow reaction to this perspective marked, on the contrary, by the constitutive cosmopolitanism of financial capitalism – already seems to provide the answer. Here I will try to raise, briefly, just one thread of this very extensive pattern: that of the relationship between power and knowledge, between political institutions and science, or rather, some aspects of this crucial relationship.

As it is well known, no other civilization has been so profoundly marked as the Western one by a certain form of the relationship between knowledge and power – a specific, peculiar form: Western, in fact, which becomes visible with the birth of the modern state and the “science” in the proper sense today we attribute to the term, between 1500 and 1600, but which had been incubating long before, since the constitution of what we could define as the agent of this profound transformation, the modern subject: in the line that goes from the space of interiority indicated by Augustine to the Cartesian cogito.

What we mean by “science” is completely different, as it is well-known, from the Greek episteme. It is so, we could say, in the name of disenchantment. As a historian of science, Steven Shapin, has written “modernity guarantees knowledge not through virtue, but through competence”.[2]  ts visible genesis lies on the passage – which has been by now adequately focused upon from Heidegger to Foucault – from the Renaissance knowledge around similarities (which recognizes natural forms as signs to be deciphered and assumes them in their correspondence, according to the secret rhythm of likes and dislikes, attractions and repulsions that wraps them in a unique, admirable divine design-grid that can never be fully illuminated), [3] to the sober “scientific” measuring and calculating that assumes representation as its terrain, where the being of the entity is resolved into objectivity: measuring-calculating, explains Bacon, aimed at the use, at the domination of nature. The man-subject-hypokeimenon is the Grund, recognized as the condition of possibility for this measurement, but the experience – whose fulcrum is the experimentum in the new “pure” space of the instrument – now falls outside his body. The subject aware of the experience (since it is crossed by it) becomes, we could say, the “social brain”. The disorientation resulting from the decline of the Renaissance’s worldview is compensated for by the assumption of a new cognitive form, aware of its own artificiality and conventionality, capable of legitimizing itself thanks to its more and more extensive “hold on the world”, to its effective unfolding, for a power greater than the one distinguished by the ‘natural’ evidence offered by the senses.  

Now, as historians teach, and Fukuyama himself recalls, the development of scientific research and technological planning – which, proceeding by accumulation, has gradually spread from Europe throughout the world – is closely intertwined with that of military power. We may perhaps say, in a certain sense, that it is the same thing. Thanks to an increasingly complex and efficient apparatus of armaments technology, Europe embarked on the colonization of the world from the 18th century onwards. The countries of other areas of the planet, especially the small ones, subsequently had to try to adapt to this development in order not to be engulfed by the power politics of the larger states. Adapting to it meant rethinking and modifying the overall structure of their production system, making it capable of absorbing and incorporating the evolution of research in the war industry. Nor could this adjustment only concern the properly economic apparatus. On the contrary, it had to be reflected in the more properly political one: foreseeing and responding to the pressure of the potential aggressiveness of neighbors meant the need to strengthen social cohesion and the unitary profile of the state, a stable legal status of interpersonal relationships, widespread education capable of consolidating technological innovation within its borders, the creation of research institutes etc. The need to create and permanently maintain its own army has ended up shaping the physiognomy of the modern state.

Much has been written about the connection between knowledge and power in modern societies. Foucault highlighted how what, at the end of a certain set of procedures, takes the form of knowledge needs acknowledged institutions that establish rules and “tests” through which it must, so to speak, strengthen and progress – institutions which, like, e.g., universities and research centers, are born and established in the context of a government politics. Knowledge that, having reached a certain authority, in turn binds. On the other hand, no power can assert itself as such if it is not able to articulate itself in stable forms, in ordered structures that imply recognized and shared knowledge. Moreover, political power acquires strength and consent proportionally to the increase of prosperity and to the evolution of lifestyles determined by scientific and technological knowledge.

In this scenario since the Second World War much has been debated on the possibilities of “the work of the spirit”, as Cacciari has named it in one of his recent works, and in its vast premises the scientific research, can at least partially avoid the appropriation of its “products” by the laws of capitalist reproduction. But, as Adorno and Horkheimer had already guessed, choosing marginality to escape the market, leads to irrelevance, while, on the contrary, taking part in it places the work in the circuit of consumption.  Exactly in Foucault’s work, which better than others had put up the veil on the mutual implication of knowledge and power, there is also an attempt to mark a gap between the individual spirit which “predisposes”, so to speak, a self-care, and the disciplinary systems that always lay out the boundaries of its experience: as he  stated in Qu’est que la critique?, a conference in 1978, it is a matter of “the art of not being excessively governed”.[4] Now, this same scenario can be useful for us to return to the question we proposed at the beginning. We pondered over the origins of the illusion that the most advanced point of Western civilization had left armed conflict behind, to convert it into the non-bloody, rational-calculable conflict of the struggle for economic supremacy. Now, the fact that modern sciences, with their discoveries extended to the digital universe, continue to shape the physiognomy of post-industrial societies – and therefore that an ethical-political space is no longer conceivable before the technical-scientific one, autonomous in relation to it, preceding  it from an ontological point of view, has caused that shift by which the need to think the two levels together has ended up confusing them: confusing the plan of development of the technical-scientific universe and the one of the ethical-political – or rather, projecting the forms of the former onto the mobile and contradictory matter of the latter.

We can say that the former has a directionality of its own – to use a term used by Fukuyama – in the sense that scientific research grows from the discoveries and results that emerged in the past centuries, in certainly non-linear ways (there is no telos, nor a recognizable point of arrival), but which in any case do not envisage a mere return to previous positions. To make an example from The End of History and the Last Man, there are “data” about nature that Newton did not know at all, while students of Physics do today, and this is simply because they were born later. This directionality, this proceeding by constant accumulation of scientific research (which cannot distinguish art: one obviously cannot say that Francis Bacon’s work constitutes an advance on that of Simone Martini), has become a sort of an implicit temporal and hermeneutical paradigm in which the forms of the ethical-political are also evaluated, as well as the changing evolution of the various institutional systems and the ethos that animates them. The turning point, in a history meant as a continuous proceeding (now deprived of an eschaton, of a final term in whose light the whole process would reveal its true nature), would be the affirmation of the universalistic principles of the two great Revolutions, the American and French ones, which transpose in a secularized key the radical novitas that Christianity had introduced into the ancient world, changing thus its features. These ideals, which reflect the image that modern man has of himself, would form part of a heritage acquired once and for all by European and therefore global consciousness: they would no longer be deniable – the fact that even dictatorial regimes rhetorically appeal to them, while operating in the opposite direction, would confirm it. Again: scientific and technical-economic progress, its internal ratio, would manifest itself, would give itself in the “destinal”, progressive absorption of the “blind” violence of war into the one governed by the rational calculation and foreseeing of economic operations, concretely showing the mutual belonging of the two levels, and therefore a conceivable historical process, in the winning sign of the western ratio, in a substantially unitary form.

All this overlooks, to put it very briefly, the original gap that separates knowledge and power, which certainly imply each other, as Foucault teaches, remaining nevertheless in an essential difference that conveys them, so to speak, to completely different logics. Unlike what happens in the history of science, nothing guarantees that the so-called “universal rights” do not fade away and are completely denied from a political-institutional point of view. It should make one think, for example, that the accusation of obsolescence recently levelled at liberal-democratic systems (since they are inefficient, at the mercy of parliaments unable to take timely decisions and of vast baroque and labyrinthine bureaucratic systems) comes – not only from within, that is to say, from forces advocating for a centralized and presidential review of national constitutions – from authoritarian regimes in which the cult of the Leader is in force, rather than from hypothetical socialist republics. The so-called “individual rights”, e.g., those of women and minorities, and the collective ones of workers, acquired over long years of difficult and painful battles, are today openly criticized, not only implicite in the great Chinese totalitarian system, but also in the heart of the West itself. Populist nationalism – intolerant of representation, perceived as a form of bourgeois Kultur of mediation – can only undermine the rule of law, restrict, and corrode its freedoms, as it has already happened in some European countries.

These are all signs of the utopian nature of the subsumption-neutralization of the political in bloodless competition, entrusted to the “calculation” of the economy – just as the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 confuted the Kojevian thesis of the “end of history”.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a moment in this process, in which Europe, forced to come to terms with the profound, structural difficulties inherent in the project of the European Union, observes with dismay, within its own borders, forces that lead to the disintegration of the equilibrium on which the fragile peace following the second post-war period was based. Peace originated, as we know, from the balance between the two victorious and hegemonic powers. After the two world wars, Europe has lost its centrality in history, it no longer activates its dynamis – but, rather, it suffers its shocks. It is divided into spheres of influence between the two victorious powers. But the emergence, for a short time, of the United States as the sole guarantor-manager of the strategic-political tensions of the planet has been interpreted as the announcement, and at the same time, the confirmation of a new order (which is imagined already present in nuce in the stations that have punctuated the historical transformations of the last few centuries) intimately crossed by the triumphant “spirit” of its own scientific and technological knowledge. It has happened without realizing, on the one hand, how irreducible the will of power is, the force Simone Weil talks about, to the knowledge that arises from the scientific revolution of the 17th century in its two aspects, closely connected: the emancipatory one that disenchants-rationalizes on the basis  of universal principles (therefore uprooting from traditions and identity logics), and the other that aims at domination, at the technical-economic use of the planet, entirely within the logic of capitalist “growth”. In other words, there is always a gap, a “remainder” between the will of power and scientific knowledge that is destined to remain.

There is no doubt that the resurgence of European populist nationalisms, which aggressively reaffirm a longed-for, papier-mâché identity, but nonetheless can gain a hold on the electorate, constitutes a sort of “backlash” in regard to the implicit uprooting in the forms of life imposed from the current flying, ghostly, financial capitalism. At first glance, they seem diametrically opposed to absolute pacifism and cancel culture. The first advocates disarmament, even unilateral. It starts, more or less consciously, precisely from that “dream” which we referred to earlier – it assumes it as a sort of implicit a priori for its somnambulistic praxis, and is therefore destined to ineffectiveness, to a purely rhetorical dimension. Something very similar, after all, certainly mutatis mutandis, happens to the radical activism of US cancel culture: it seems to be placed at the point of maximum opposition to the resurgence of those properly reactionary phenomena, but, more or less consciously, it appeals precisely to that illusion, and is therefore incapable of an authentic historical-critical look onto our Western civilization – incapable of intelligently distinguishing filiations and responsibilities, and what we must save as real treasures to be guarded.

The millions of deaths produced by the Second World War, the heaps of corpses that stood on the ruined roads, constituted for a few decades, as has already happened in history, a silent call to a measure, to that original sense of the limit that collective death has always evoked. But they soon disappeared from the horizon of our short memory.


* The text, which has maintained the character of the oral exposition, reproduces with some slight modifications the speech held at the Philosophy and Art Festival ‘Transiti’, Castelli Romani, in December 2022.


[1] See M. Cacciari, Il lavoro dello spirito, Milano, Adelphi, 2020, pp. 65-95.


[2] S. Shapin, A Social History of Truth. Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994, p. 412.


[3] See M. Foucault , Les mots et les choses, Paris, Gallimard 1966, pp. 32-59.


[4] See M. Foucault, Qu’est que la critique?, Paris, Vrin 2015.


Luigi A. Manfreda teaches Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Rome, Tor Vergata. He directs the magazines “Agalma” and “Il Cannocchiale”. He is the author of several publications, including Il circolo e lo specchio. Sul fondamento in Hegel (Il melangolo, Genova 2012); Simone Weil, L’impossible et le nécessaire, in S. Weil, réception et transposition (Colloques de Cerisy, Garnier, Paris 2019); L’intimo e l’estraneo. Scrittura e composizione del sé (Quodlibet, Macerata 2021).

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