Europa weeps; Cruel Optimism in the Cult of Modernity


(photo taken  in Buenos Aires on one of my aimless solitary walks through its parks. we can pretend the context was Rome or Berlin. )

The swastika symbol proliferated in European (and post-colonial South American) architecture in the early 20th century, as a symbol of good luck and prosperity. It was so popular it was even displayed on British National Savings stamps. This wikipedia article is quite rich in examples:

I argue that displaying ‘good luck’ on the facades of new public buildings was a form of cruel optimism. Lauren Berlant coined the expression in her homogeneous book to describe ‘ when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing’, with reference to American culture of the 80s. In my view, this ‘cruel optimism’ originates in the modernist rationalist protestant ethic, which is what led to the belief that development (from increased modernization, building, capitalization) brought prosperity, and that  this prosperity  brought happiness: hence, swastikas, hence, ‘good luck’.

Though the pre-Nazi use of the swastika is ordinarily diametrically opposed to its later anti-semitic  fascist meaning, early 20th century European uses of the swastika were in fact expressing the modernist mode of thinking that would precisely lead to Nazism. 19th and 20th century  nationalism and racism all originate from positivist and social darwinist narratives. What pre-Nazi swastikas symbolized was the cult of progress– the desire to progress through the fetish of a ‘good luck’ icon. This desire was indeed the obstacle to the flourishing of the idealized humanitarian Europe, for it led to the barbarianism of the second world war.

So a word of caution to those who see a swastika on a building and say ‘oh, that’s from before Nazism and has nothing to do with it, it’s just an Indian symbol.’ No: it is a  colonialist European appropriation of an Hindu/Buddhist symbol to express their passion for modernity (a modernity based on the superiority of the Indo-Europeans). The symbol which proliferates the buildings of Paris, Berlin and Rome, is not innocent just because it was made before Nazism. It expresses the positivist ideology that would lead to Nazism, the ideology that still prevails today. I’m not saying these buildings should be torn down, but that they should serve as reminders of the perils of modernity. Instead, they are ignored and slotted as ‘early 20th century architecture’ without much thought to the ideology this architecture represents.

So weep Europe, for as long as progress is still idolized, you will see your children suffer.


  1. Accusing people of “cultural appropriation” is the latest gimmick of the anti-civilization left. Cultural appropriation? You mean, culture!

    If anything the problem with the west is that they insufficiently exchanged ideas with other cultures. Only a wider exchange of ideas can spread the good ones and weed out the bad ones. Like my boss says, you have to be both assertive and open-minded — both spread your ideas when they are better, and accept other people’s ideas when yours are worse.

    Cultural protectionism — ouch.


  2. In the end, both believing that there is nothing to learn from others and believing that there is nothing to teach them are complementary forms of the worst of racism: believing that these others are not actual human beings capable of fully partaking in the one and only global civilization.


    1. That’s not at all what I was talking about. The theme of this article is not an attack on cultural appropriation. It’s about the history of the use of a symbol within Europe, that was not innocent (because it symbolized progress, modernity, ‘cruel’ optimism, all positivist ideologies which led to war). That has nothing to do with criticism of cultural appropriation.


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