Germany – a Banana Republic?

The critics of representative democracy suspect it of disenfranchising voters because they are prevented from voting directly on legislative proposals. This accusation ignores social reality, which has changed fundamentally since ancient Greece and the Germanic Thing, where free men (women were still excluded) decided on war and peace and many other basic concerns. Modern society has become so complex that most decisions require technical expertise that can only be provided by specialists. We need only think of climate change. Almost every enlightened citizen realizes that the further poisoning of the atmosphere with CO2 is a great evil that we should stop as soon as possible, but only a few people are aware of the far-reaching consequences of ill-considered measures. If we really want to save the climate, our economy and our current way of life will have to undergo drastic changes – changes that in ways quite unimaginable to most people, would interfere with production, transportation, the energy industry, and most importantly, jobs and incomes.

Direct democracy is an ideal

that can only be realized if all citizens are equally well informed about all issues at stake. But that was no longer the case even in the days of Athenian democracy – and has been less and less so ever since. After the industrial revolution, man has lived in a knowledge society of exponentially growing expertise and professional competence. Even seemingly simple problems, such as whether and to what extent a state may incur debt, presuppose comprehensive knowledge, which the popular providers of knowledge, that is, the media, only convey in a fragmented or populistically distorted manner, because citizens usually stressed by everyday work are understandably not inclined or even able to deal personally with problems that have become unmanageable in their range and ramifications. To put it bluntly: the rejection of direct democracy in favor of a representative one was forced upon modern states by their transition toward knowledge societies. Anyone who still propagates the former as the solution to our actual problems is a dangerous populist because he wants laymen to decide on technical problems only understood by specialists.

But doesn’t this statement imply the suspicion

that democracy is no longer functioning, precisely because most of the issues at hand are no longer accessible to the average voter and the media – as the fourth authority alongside the executive, legislative and judicial branches – hardly offer any real clarification?

No, this conclusion would be quite misleading, because in a deeper and therefore essential respect, citizens remain the authority of last resort: in their value judgments. Whether a majority approves of further immigration or whether it lets itself be determined by pity to open the borders; whether people want material equality rather than a special promotion of talents, i.e. greater inequality; whether the inner cities should be kept free of traffic or the car should be given right of way everywhere; whether marriage should be limited to men and women or apply to all; whether religious minorities should have the same rights as the traditionally dominant religion; whether politicians should be allowed to enrich themselves personally through their office – these and similar questions depend on value judgments on which every citizen can express his preference – value judgments do not require expert knowledge.

Exactly the opposite is true: Values are at the root of all expert knowledge.  After all, the Industrial Revolution and the exponential expansion of our scientific and technical knowledge caused by it were themselves the result of a new value orientation. Since that time, man has hoped to find happiness in the improvement of earthly conditions instead of a future career in heaven.

The dichotomy of decision-making

in modern Western democracies is therefore tailored to modern society in its historically developed shape. The citizen is to remain the final authority in matters of moral value judgments. The majority within a territory are entitled to decide how they want to live together and design their own future and that of their children. The technical questions of how and whether these ideas can be realized in concrete terms are then decided by parliamentary committees and ministerial bureaucracies, which – ideally – dispose of the required knowledge. The division of democratic decision-making into fundamental value decisions expressed by all citizens and technical competence, which they delegate to technical committees and technically competent bureaucracies, is the direct and unavoidable consequence of social complexity.

Since every citizen has the right to vote and to stand for election,

representative democracy cannot avoid certain dangers. It may enable people without any knowledge to become politicians or even heads of state. It also allows demagogues who want to abolish democracy to rally a large following behind them. This danger can be mitigated but not abolished by an educational system that provides the broadest possible general education up to the beginning of professional training at universities. The greater the proportion of citizens who have at least the basic ability to distinguish specialized knowledge from charlatanry, the better the conditions for the functioning of democracy.

But education alone is not enough to prevent a legal transition to dictatorship (as has already been accomplished in Russia and is in the offing in Poland and Hungary). It may always happen that a majority of citizens is convinced that only a strong man with unlimited powers can solve pending problems. This is where the judiciary comes into play as the third pillar of a functioning democracy. It exercises the indispensable task of defending the constitution against those who try to subvert freedom by legal means.

Value judgments are subject to a wide range of fluctuation

not infrequently they are even opposed to each other. For this reason, coalitions are a suitable democratic means of giving minorities a say. When the two strongest parties have roughly equal numbers of votes, as is the case with the SPD and the Christian Democrats after this year’s federal election, then under normal circumstances both have the possibility and the right to seek coalitions that would secure government responsibility for either of them. This does not distort the voters’ mandate – on the contrary, the latter is reflected in possible coalition variants.

I dwell on these basic considerations of representative democracy before pointing out that they seem to have been forgotten in today’s Germany. Some politicians are paving the way toward a bananarepublic.

For the basic democratic competence

is taken away from citizens if his or her value decision is called into question. Whatever one may think of the two candidates for chancellor, Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet – is of no importance in the present context. The only thing to keep in mind is the fact that one of them recorded an enormous increase in votes, while the other caused his party to lose votes like never before since its founding in 1945. In this case, the voter has made a clear value decision. He does not want Armin Laschet as German chancellor. Against such a background, it is quite insignificant that the two leading parties were able to garner roughly the same number of votes. This fact does not reflect the preference of voters, which is expressed by the enormous increase in votes for one candidate and the huge loss of votes for the other.

From some sides we hear,

that such objections do not count because politics has little to do with morals. So, you can’t blame Armin Laschet for pulling out all the stops to save his political future. Anyone who speaks in this way is a cynic who despises democracy. He wants to deprive voters of the only real competence they are not only allowed but required to exercise if representative democracy is to have any meaning. Fortunately, there are high-ranking politicians like Michael Kretschmer, the prime minister of Saxony, who refuses to howl with the wolves. And Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder at least concedes, “No claim to form a government arises from second place.” These are the voices Democrats should listen to. Politician of whatever party should not be allowed to make a mockery of the will of voters and of democratic decency out of a personal obsession with power.

Let us not delude ourselves

The next step in the direction that leads us away from democracy and toward a banana republic would be to challenge the election itself – as has been done by Donald Trump in one of the world’s oldest democracies. It is regrettable that Angela Merkel, who achieved such a sovereign, such an admirable exit from politics, stood by the clear loser Armin Laschet, at least not contradicting him when he put himself in play as a candidate for chancellor. As for the Greens and the FDP, it is understandable that they see the unpleasant, undemocratic move of Arnim Laschet as an opportunity to squeeze out a maximum of demands for themselves, but this is no excuse in terms of democratic policy.

However, these breaches of democratic decency

should not make us forget that democracy faces even greater challenges. Citizens are supposed to have the right to decide on values and thus give direction to politics, while ministerial bureaucracies and parliamentary committees are then supposed to technically implement this direction and these values. But how is this to be done when the technical apparatus of modern economies has become so autonomous that the freedom of citizens is inevitably increasingly restricted?

Highways, high-voltage power lines and sprawling wind farms

certainly do not make the landscape more beautiful – that is no secret, but it is an inevitable development if our hunger for energy is to be satisfied. Likewise, small-scale agriculture once beautified nature, while large-scale plantations and endless fields are turning it into an agricultural desert – another inevitable consequence of the planet’s overpopulation, which is also responsible for our need to further increase harvests through the use of genetically modified, pesticide-dependent crops that meet the world’s growing demand. These are developments that nobody wanted – nor are they the effects of any particular economic system such as capitalism or neoliberalism. Rather, they result from the eightfold increase of population within the past two centuries and from the fact that all these people strive for the highest standard of living.

The techno-economic apparatus has taken on a life of its own

that increasingly restricts our freedom. The same applies, of course, to the people who operate its levers and ensure that we do not starve, have our jobs, and draw our incomes and pensions. The picture of democracy sketched above is an ideal abstraction that does not account for actual power. In addition to the executive, legislative and judicial branches, there is also the “privative” – the private sector – which, through lobbyists and the media, wields more power than all parliamentary committees and ministerial bureaucracies combined. In the US, the power of the private sector is obvious. Presidential candidates must run the gauntlet of an election campaign that gets more expensive every year and can only be won with substantial donations from big corporations. No American president can govern against big business, but he can certainly govern against the people.

In Germany, this development toward plutocracy has gone less far. However, the transition to a service society together with digital automation could decimate the workforce to such an extent that the unions, as a counterweight, lose as much power as they already did on the other side of the Atlantic. The greatest danger to democracy comes not from people like Armin Laschet who flout the rules of the game, but from the fourth power, the mighty private sector, which could abolish them altogether and use the government as the executor of its will.

Delta – Is democracy losing the battle against dictatorship and autocracy?

Although we usually hear populists in both camps saying, that the realm of good – their own – is facing that of evil – the other side, U.S. and Chinese students and scholars move effortlessly from one country to the other. After the Chinese conformed most of their institutions to the Western model, the similarities between them are significantly greater than anything that still separates them. “The Chinese now enjoy almost complete freedom of movement. They can buy a house, choose an education, start a job or a business, join a church (as long as it is Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism or Protestantism), dress as they like, openly express homosexual tendencies without ending up in a penal colony, travel abroad at their own pleasure and even criticize the party as long as they do not question its rule. So even lack of freedom is no longer what it used to be” (Norberg). Meantime, however, these freedoms apply only to Chinese without negative entries on their social credit account that shows the balance of good behavior and negative marks for every citizen of the empire. Xi Jinping has succeeded in imposing the Orwellian vision of a perfect surveillance state on a nation of more than one billion people. Yet the 99 percent of obeying citizens have nothing to fear – instead they benefit from security, prosperity and advancement. It is the remaining one percent, those rebelling against the party’s regulations and leadership, who must reckon with suppression and persecution, up to and including physical annihilation. This applies to the Han Chinese themselves but much more to the subjugated Uyghurs and Tibetans. The party is convinced that it confers happiness on the people (and it has undoubtedly succeeded in a material sense). That is the reason why it does not shrink back from imposing happiness from above. An overwhelming majority – though certainly not 99 % – seem to approve of the system as long as it brings them and their country prosperity and visible power. In this perspective, the reckless persecution of opponents seems a small sacrifice.

In the West, politics and the public lean to the other side. We are dedicated to protecting outsiders, critics and even outspoken opponents of our political, social and moral system. With this attitude of tolerance, we are morally far superior to any surveillance state – but only as long as the freedom of critics and outsiders does not threaten the freedom of the community as a whole. If this balance is upset, states collapse due to internal resistance. Unfortunately, such process of inner corrosion is already taking place.

This can be seen in the response to the pandemic

Even though the government of China constantly trumpets its successes to the world for propaganda reasons, we must acknowledge that it has indeed taken and implemented the right measures to protect its people, while the West still fails miserably in this task. Vaccination against dangerous epidemics was once compulsory even in European countries and could be carried out without mass protests. In 1807, the Kingdom of Bavaria was the first German state to introduce compulsory vaccination, which was followed by other states in the following decades. Then, in 1874, all Germans in the German Empire were required by the Imperial Vaccination Act to have their children vaccinated against smallpox at the ages of one and twelve (repeat vaccination).

After the Second World War, there was a legal obligation to vaccinate in the GDR from 1953, which was successively extended until 1970: In addition to smallpox, vaccination against tuberculosis (1953), polio (1961), diphtheria (1961), tetanus (1961), and pertussis (1964, then in the form of the DTP vaccine) was mandatory; from 1970, vaccination against measles was also legally required.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, there was compulsory vaccination against diphtheria and scarlet fever from 1946 to 1954, and there was general compulsory vaccination against smallpox from 1949 to the end of 1975. The legal basis for the compulsory smallpox vaccination at that time was still the Imperial Vaccination Act of 1874.

Some of the most dangerous epidemics were completely or largely eradicated as a result, so that nowadays vaccination against them is no longer necessary – a life-saving medical success owed exclusively to the compulsory vaccination at previous times.

China, a nation of more than a billion people,

has achieved within a few months, what Westerners too were still able to do in the 19th century. Why are we no longer able to do this today? Why do a billion people in China suffer from no more than a dozen cases of corona per day (most of them introduced from outside), while we will soon have to accept the next killing wave? Certainly, the contrast between China and the West cannot be blamed on a lack of knowledge on our part. Our pharmaceutical companies and epidemiological experts are still superior to the Chinese. Nor can we simply explain the difference setting our Western freedom against Chinese autocracy. A jab in the arm that protects me and the persons I meet from possible death or probable illness is a much lesser encroachment on my liberties than, for example, the fact that in the leading Western power, the United States, anyone is allowed to get a firearm, thus massively compromising the safety of the community. Even taxes, against which the rich can successfully defend themselves with a variety of legal tricks, constitute a restriction of liberties, but they generate far less resistance than compulsory vaccination. Nay, I may say that even crosswalks noticeably restrict my personal freedom, since they forbid me to cross the street wherever I like. But apart from anarchists, whose highest value is their own unrestricted freedom, no one has ever seriously complained about this. Like in present day China, people in 19th century Germany still trusted science and the state that acted according to its precepts. If epidemiological experts (at least an overwhelming majority among them) are agreed that vaccination will safe a hundred times more lives than it may cost, then it was considered a foregone conclusion that it must be made compulsory for the benefit of the community. The opponents were rightly considered ego-hungry populists from a moral point of view, dangerous obstructionists from a political perspective, and poor lunatics (one could also say ignorant imbeciles) in the light of science.

Should the West lose the battle against China and other autocracies,

it is not because it glorifies personal freedom as an ideal – hardly could there be a more beautiful vision – but because it no longer understands the meaning and aim of freedom. Freedom gets confused with the empowerment of individual citizens to act at will against the interests of the community. As for the ownership of firearms, such confusion is obvious (to all but US-Americans). It makes no sense to preach tolerance towards egomaniacal populists, dangerous obstructionists and ignorant idiots, even if these people endanger the physical and psychological stability of society. At its peak, which, as we know, may reemerge at any time, the epidemic paralyzed Western societies in a way that usually only happens in times of war. If the leading medical experts can guarantee that a simple measure such as compulsory vaccination will effectively defeat the enemy (as it has successfully done in the past), then any Western state is behaving irresponsibly towards its citizens if it refrains from saving their lives by doing so. China has acted with great determination and success and by now almost vaccinated its entire population – more than a fifth of the world’s whole population. The communist giant pours scorn on the helpless West.  If we do not understand that in a temporary state of war, the protection of the community takes precedence over the will of populists, obstructionists, poor lunatics and ignorant idiots, then we must be prepared that ever larger parts of the population will long for an autocratic regime that knows how to act in times of emergency.

The process is already underway, and it is so precisely among those people who we hear screaming the loudest, namely populists, obstructionists and lunatics.

Migration and Dishonesty

By dishonesty I understand an attitude that hides behind a facade of morality unpalatable measures that obviously violate avowed principles. The European immigration or rather anti-immigration policy is a glaring and shameful example. It is an incontestable fact that a vast majority of Europe’s citizens do not want further immigration. The governing bodies – i.e., national governments, the European Commission, and the European Parliament – are, of course, fully aware of this fact, not only through referenda, but also through the outcome of elections whenever migration (or xenophobia) becomes an issue. Politicians are therefore doing their best to curb immigration, for example, by paying (more correctly, bribing) Turkey with more than three billion euro to put a stop to further unwanted immigration to Greece and other countries of eastern Europe.

Any honest international observer knows that holding migrants back can only be achieved by force. People who no longer see a future in their own country due to political oppression or a lack of prospects for economic survival (a no less life-threatening challenge) are understandably prepared to overcome any obstacles by sheer violence if necessary. Keeping them out of a more promising country therefore requires an equal amount of counterviolence. This too is no secret to the EU. But the Union feels satisfied if others soil their hands in the process, so that she herself need not climb down from her elevated moral pedestal. I call this dishonesty. Violence is not diminished or made more acceptable by leaving its execution to others.

The same dishonesty is apparent in Europe’s treatment of the refugee camps in Greece, Libya or Tunisia. The prevailing conditions there are definitely inhumane (just as they are in the US-camps at the Mexican border). The countries of North Africa, just like Turkey, are being paid by Europe to do what is necessary to stop the avalanche of people from the battered countries of the Middle East as well as from the desperately poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa that are particularly affected by climate change. They do this by treating the refugees like lepers or criminals, because young adventurers hoping for a better life elsewhere or even desperate people with nothing to lose are deterred only in this brutal way. If instead they were handled with kid gloves in these reception centers, we can be sure that cell phones would immediately broadcast the sensational news to the entire world, causing the flow of people to swell into a mass migration.

Those who resist cheap lies cannot deny these facts. But most people want to be appeased with lies. They certainly don’t want any more strangers in their country, but they still want to live with a clear conscience. So, they are willing to pay large sums of money for the defense against migrants, but they do not want to know that the defense against desperate people and young adventurers is possible only by force and in violation of human rights. Can we see anything other than dishonesty in this attitude?

As long as there is that glaring difference between poor and rich nations, the situation is not likely to change. We should therefore ask ourselves what is more important, a clear conscience or the defense against unrestricted migration? For, obviously, both cannot be had at the same time. Moral absolutists, who reject any kind of violence against their fellow human beings, have a clear answer from the outset. For them, the distribution of all refugees from Asia or Africa arriving in Greece, Italy and Spain over the whole of Europe is a self-evident postulate. If they were consistent, they would even have to go much further. Without doubt, it is inhumane to expose boat refugees to the danger of drowning. The consistent moral absolutist would have to advocate a bridge across the Mediterranean, e.g. at Gibraltar.

Oddly enough, moral absolutists like to see themselves as staunch defenders of democracy. This is an embarrassing fact as it results in an obvious contradiction. They are very keen to help the people on the other side of the border, but for what they see as the unenlightened majority in their own country they have little understanding at best, and open contempt at worst. As already mentioned, an overwhelming majority in all countries of Europe is strictly against further immigration – and this with some irrefutable reasons. First-generation immigrants are willing to accept great hardships such as minimum wages in order to gain a foothold within their new homeland. They are therefore popular with entrepreneurs, but feared by workers, the unemployed and precarious employees as dangerous competition (a justified fear that populists like to exploit in the shape of xenophobia). As is well known, Donald Trump’s victory is not insignificantly explained by the resentment of the so-called “white trash” and its fear of precisely this competition. These people still crave for a wall on the border with Mexico. The moral absolutists, on the other hand, need not fear competition from refugees. On the contrary, they benefit from cheap servants, errand boys and parcel deliverers who depress wages. In other words, they can afford to be enlightened cosmopolitans and cultivate a clear conscience – after all, they are predominantly part of the educated, sheltered and privileged section of society.

We live in a time when we can no longer have both at the same time, a clear conscience and the defense against people beyond our borders. When we repel them, we accept the use of violence, yes, and inhumanity. It is nothing but dishonesty if we imagine to improve the situation by paying others to do the dirty work for us. That does not diminish our own responsibility. If we want to maintain a clear conscience at any price, we have to open the door to the avalanche of people from the many long overpopulated parts of the earth.

But what would we achieve by doing so? From an ecological perspective, the countries of Europe are already far beyond the sustainability limit at their current population levels. The most industrialized countries of Europe consume up to five planets. Not more but less people is – ecologically speaking – the only right strategy for the future.

The decision for or against open borders is thus one of the great challenges of our time. The decision is all the more painful as the people on the other side of the border have, of course, the same right to a decent life as we do. But moral absolutists oversimplify when they unreservedly approve migration on the basis of this conviction. They can certainly have a clear conscience – but only at the price of banishing inconvenient reality from their field of vision. The price is high – it consists in more or less conscious dishonesty.

In contrast, the opponents of open borders have a much harder time. They know that an unrestricted influx of strangers will cause resistance – popular uprisings, social disintegration, and even civil wars (in the United States, social disintegration is well underway). Their disillusioned view of reality makes the realists – let’s call them that way – anything but happy. They are painfully aware that desperate refugees can only be warded off by force in a world where climate change will soon condemn many to even greater poverty. For the realists, the problem is not dishonesty but the admission that there can never be – nay, that there will never be, a clear conscience on these issues.

The dilemma is expressed directly and factually in the incessant struggle between the two camps. The realists are willing to bribe border states outside the European Union for their services and to turn a blind eye to the way they crack down on refugees at the borders. They are only lying if they convince themselves: It is those brutal others who do so and not us. And they are also lying when they try to keep this brutality out of the public eye. 

The moral absolutists, on the other hand, are making every effort to expose these evils and make them public. They are constantly on the lookout for human rights violations by Frontex and in the refugee camps. Thus, in Europe, realism and moral aspiration are in irreconcilable and constant struggle with each other. It seems to me a particular misfortune that this real and existential dilemma is usually expressed and discussed only on the level of right-wing xenophobia versus left-wing cosmopolitanism. But that is not really the point – as is vividly demonstrated when European states recruit well-trained professionals from abroad and welcome them with open arms. As long as foreigners do not overburden the native population through excessive numbers and a lack of willingness to integrate, they can be a great enrichment. Almost all modern states have come into being in this way – a fact that a cursory perusal of telephone directories quickly confirms. The point is that an unregulated influx becoming too large within a short period of time poses a threat to the internal cohesion of any society.

Adolf Hitler in private – a jolly good Fellow?

Experts are surrounded by their own aura. They know everything about a certain subject, which they have usually studied all their lives – this seems to make them unassailable. But why, then, does a popular German saying deny them a truly profound knowledge? There is often but a single step from specialism to professional blindness! Continue reading Adolf Hitler in private – a jolly good Fellow?

Adam Tooze – An experts’s review of ten years of global economic crisis

Recently (on 14 August) I had the good fortune to follow an interview with the British historian Adam Tooze on Austrian Radio. I was so impressed that I immediately took to reading his book “Crashed. How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World” (Allen Lane 2018) ) – and so an important work finally reached me with a two-year delay. These are my comments:

Continue reading Adam Tooze – An experts’s review of ten years of global economic crisis

The snow of yesterday is today’s Deluge – Remarks on an amazing book by Daniela Dahn

There are books – and, alas, they make up the vast majority – that one skims over because they offer nothing more than facts that we barely take note of. There are others where each sentence acquires importance because it expresses an attitude, a person’s relationship to the world, and therefore urges the reader to take a stand. I was recently allowed to read one such book, its author is Daniela Dahn. She writes about the injustice that Germany’s Western half has done to the citizens of the East, calling on the West to reflect on its failures. What so much pleases me about this book – even though its theses are anything but pleasant – is its honesty. In times of generalized dishonesty, where arguments mostly serve as weapons in the struggle of parties, this is a refreshing book. Let us listen to the author’s own words.

Continue reading The snow of yesterday is today’s Deluge – Remarks on an amazing book by Daniela Dahn

The Virus in our Heads

Almost daily I watch one or the other transmission of the Russian-speaking channel 1TVRUS, because I want to know about the mood of our largest neighbor. The English-language programs of RT (Russia Today) are less informative in this respect, because they are geared towards Western expectations. “Vremja pokazhet” (Time will tell) is aimed at a Russian audience. It’s a talk show that’s louder and wilder than any other I know. Regularly discussants shout down each other, as if the volume of their voices were decisive for the quality of opinions.

Continue reading The Virus in our Heads

Strong Men, Weak Peoples – the Uncertain Future of Democracy

A critical reviewer would probably have to accompany this essay in the manner of Wikipedia: “additional evidence required”. Nevertheless, I dare to publish it, because I fear that there will never be enough evidence on this topic – but instead lots of different opinions. What I may offer the reader are mere impressions, everyone may supplement them in his own way and with his – hopefully better – knowledge. Continue reading Strong Men, Weak Peoples – the Uncertain Future of Democracy

Fake Reality – two Reasons why even the Greens are only telling half the Truth about Climate Change

Dedicated to William E. Rees Continue reading Fake Reality – two Reasons why even the Greens are only telling half the Truth about Climate Change

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz – statesman or ingenious juggler?

This question offers no foregone conclusion. Before the chairman of the Austrian People’s Party achieved his sensational election success, the judgements of friends and foes could well be subsumed under these two terms: statesman or juvenile juggler. Continue reading Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz – statesman or ingenious juggler?