The West, arguably still the most progressive part of humanity – progressive in the sense of material welfare and spiritual openness – suffers from a disease that threatens to tear it apart: schizophrenia. This disease is inadequately described by the two opposing camps of the right and the left. After all, both exist since the 18th century – they belong, so to speak, to democratic normality. Even the three-century old contradiction between the two ideals of equality and freedom does not do justice to the current situation. The left strives for greater equality, the right for more freedom.
But the antagonism between equality and freedom
seems outdated. Very few people still listen when SPD, SPÖ, the Italian Partito Democratico, France or Spain’s Socialists demand greater equality. Evidently, the message is no longer getting through – left-wing party newspapers are a thing of the past or are hardly read anymore. Some will explain this finding – as did Ralf Dahrendorf in the 1990s – as a proof for the very success of the democratic socialists. They achieved their goal to such an extent as to render themselves superfluous. That is undoubtedly true, for the majority of people in Western countries now enjoy a material standard of living never seen before. Although equality is even more threatened, given that the number of the super-rich has steadily increased, this fact up to now did not lead to serious popular revolts, since inequality no longer means hunger and early death for the disadvantaged, as it did in former times. The welfare state succeeded in absorbing revolt.
That is why the struggle against inequality – the classic theme of the left – hardly arouses emotions. The same is true of the struggle for freedom – the classic theme of the right. Rather, the two popular parties throughout Europe have made welfare for the masses their real program – in Germany, the CDU under Angela Merkel became social democratic. Freedom and equality were the catchwords to which the Enlightenment owed its political explosiveness and fascination during the 18th century and beyond; today both terms play only a subordinate role in political discourse. The fault lines run elsewhere. What has happened?
That can only be understood,
if we look at those parties that in the past two or three decades have shot up – some would say – like poisonous mushrooms. In Germany we have the AfD, in Italy the Lega, in France the Front National (today Rassemblement National), in Hungary Fidesz, in Poland the PiS. Shinzo Abe has led the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan in the same direction, as has Donald Trump in the US where he succeeded in mentally raping the “Grand Old Party”. It may be said that the West has gone “global” by adopting a worldwide tendency towards authoritarian political parties or even governments.
Outside the West, China has consistently pursued this path for decades, as has India led by Hindu nationalists, and Russia has done so under Putin. Obviously, neither the new authoritarian parties of the West nor those of the rest of the world can be integrated into the old pattern of right versus left. China, Russia and India, for example, allow freedom to the extent that it serves to strengthen their country’s economy by mobilizing private initiative and attracting foreign investors. They do, however, suppress freedom without hesitation and often brutally as soon as it threatens to kindle internal contradictions thus weakening social cohesion. They also give to equality a different meaning. It is not understood materially – do not forget: probably nowhere more than in China so many individuals became billionaires within so short a time, and nowhere is spectacular wealth so brazenly paraded as by Russia’s newly rich oligarchs. But real importance is attached to the equality of ideology, which – morally underpinned – consists above all of a nationalistic credo.
When finding authoritarian parties described as “extreme right-wing”, we should be aware that they are by no means right-wing in the classical sense, because freedom plays only a minor role. Nor are they declared opponents of material egalitarianism, as was once characteristic of the right-wing camp. Equality does indeed play a role for them, but – as already said – in a strictly ideological sense as a kind of common creed. It is therefore much more correct to call these parties simply “nationalistic” or even “chauvinistic. From the AfD to the Lega to Trumps America, Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinpings China, they conjure up the uniqueness and greatness of their respective countries, which they want to preserve and strengthen at any price.
Their opponents, who are most aptly described as “cosmopolitans”,
are almost everywhere recruited from the educated classes (the only exception seems to be China, where the party draws intellectuals into its ranks). It has always been a privilege of intellectuals to look beyond their own country to the rest of the world. Western research – anthropology, sociology, psychology – has preceded them in this endeavor especially over the past decades. Its results: For at least 50,000 years (but presumably much longer) people all over the world have been genetically and psychologically identical. This insight is historically new. It is true that monotheistic religions such as Christianity or Islam postulated the unity of mankind much earlier, but this unity only encompassed the believers – pagans and heretics were regularly fought against, if not exterminated. As to the American and French revolutions, both proclaimed the equality of all people – but only in theory, in practice until the middle of the twentieth century white people were agreed that other “races” – especially the black, yellow and red ones – were far inferior to themselves. Therefore, there had been little scruples to subject them militarily and exploit them economically.
It was only in the second half of the last century
that a fundamental change was finally to occur. First, research has concluded that all differences between people are based solely on acquired cultural peculiarities – in other words, that they are modifiable, as is culture itself. But more important than learned research – the results of which seldom determine public thinking – was the fact that states such as Japan, the former East Asian tigers and China experienced such a breathtaking rise. The tremendous practical success of states that one hundred year ago barely existed for average Europeans was instrumental in invalidating old prejudices. From then on it could no longer be denied that other peoples when faced with appropriate conditions are just as “capable” or perhaps even more capable than we ourselves. Not only among the educated, but even in large parts of the population, it was now tacitly accepted to recognize other people everywhere on earth as having equal rights and equal dignity.
In the eyes of intellectuals
and, for a short time, even among a large part of the population, this realization resulted in the willingness to open the door – and even to throw it wide open. If all people are indeed equal and have equal rights, there can be no reasonable objection against admitting everyone into the country (at least as long as this seems economically feasible). The conclusion seems so evident and incontestable that it was championed by intellectuals as a new creed – upheld with the same conviction and even intolerance as the former ideals of freedom and equality.
Immigration has by no means accidentally become a battle word dividing people. The “enlightened” run against “nationalists” with the same fanaticism as “nationalists” run against the enlightened. Both refuse to talk to each other, as if the respective opponents lacked not only reason, but even the right to existence. The once were called bullheads by their opponents, the others “fucking liberals” – in other words, this fight reminds of the religious wars of earlier times, when Catholics refused to sit at a table with Protestants, Sunnis with Shiites, Christians with Muslims, Socialists with capitalists to which they even refused to talk. To every party the own truth seemed unshakable, while that of the opponent was declared inhumane or taboo. At former times such conflicts were regularly decided by violence and war – today by social ostracism.*1*
Ideological enmities usually have
little connection to the ideals, in whose name they are produced, but very much to basic human needs. At a low mental level, the contrast between the ideals of equality and freedom simply meant that some, in the name of equality, wanted to acquire the wealth and social positions of their more favored compatriots, while the latter, in the name of freedom, were adamantly holding fast on their privileges.
The contrast between cosmopolitans and nationalists extends to greater depths. Generalized human love is a typical intellectual attitude based on knowledge and a need for justice. But it is an abstract ideal: we only know definite people – mankind is a concept that lacks any emotional reality and meaning. The average citizen therefore hardly knows what to do with it. He loves his wife, his children, his friends and at most all other people who speak his language and think and feel like him. For him, as for almost all people since the beginning of history, feelings are focused on people he knows – not on people unknown to him who exist somewhere in the world. This situation was not substantially changed by the introduction of newspapers, correspondence and the social media of our time. Deep human bonds still require the exchange of feelings and direct physical proximity. Even entrepreneurs have come to realize the need for physical meetings. Video conferences are only held between people already well known to each other from personal encounters. Otherwise, mutual mistrust makes it almost impossible to conclude durable contracts.
The contrast between love of one’s neighbor and love of foreigners
has a lot to do with our subject. If we want to be in harmony with society, it is not important that we consider Muslims in Afghanistan, Shiites in Persia or the Bantu of the Congo to be ours equals – this insight is of the greatest importance for our theory of man, but it is irrelevant for our well-being in the society in which we are at home. What matters is that we can respect, appreciate and love the people around us and, conversely, receive the same respect from them. It is, however, a fact, that modern competitive society though generating wealth like no society before, has – perhaps like no society before – isolated and alienated people from each other . Above all, it has torn the weakest members of society out of all traditional bonds. Constant technical change, enforced readiness to be available at all times and to change one’s place of residence and thus also one’s friends and partners – all this has contributed to atomize modern society throwing its isolated members into a social void, where mutual respect, esteem or even love increasingly wither away. In this situation, everything new appears more and more as a threat – especially foreign people with different habits and convictions. The protest against the present time and its challenges then manifests itself in a clinging to those remnants of identity, which are left from the past. In the new German federal states, where instead of the “blooming landscapes” once promised by chancellor Helmut Kohl disorientation to the point of decay still prevail, such lost identity consists of nostalgically conjured memories of the former GDR, where life was certainly more miserable in material terms, but was felt to be more socially satisfying. Marx has used the concept of alienation to refer to the relationship of man to the things he produces, but alienation between people is the real problem because it inflicts much deeper wounds. In general, nationalists do not draw their identity from the great epochs of German history, from which they could take many good lessons, but their dislike for of the present – often increased to the point of hatred – tempts them to choose as their point of reference orient the most disgraceful part of German history, those terrible thirteen years when hatred provided the basso continuo.
Here we are faced with the real danger,
which we will not adequately explain unless we search for its causes. In other words, European intellectuals should not express arrogant contempt for extremist movements, but ask themselves why these were able to emerge in the first place. Almost for half a century after the end of World War II, virulent nationalism practically did not exist (in homeopathic doses all aberrations are, of course, present in every society at any moment). Why did the AfD – originally a political party of university professors who fought against the euro with quite serious arguments – suddenly turn into a party of xenophobes after Angela Merkel’s opened the borders for masses of refugees? Why were nationalist movements all over Europe and in other Western countries as well so much strengthened? Could it be that the educated ultimately turn out to be semi-educated only, because they refuse searching for causes let alone to overcome them? Could it be that it seems much more satisfying to them – a characteristic of all privileged social classes – to look down on these poor lunatics, because it gives one so nice a feeling of superiority? They should at least be aware that exclusion, refusal to talk, contempt and a lack of willingness to fight the causes are, in the long run, poisonous for democracy.
Societies based on competition
have created wealth at the expense of social cohesion. The pace of change is too fast for many people; it overwhelms them and demands too many sacrifices. People have been deprived of their identity or more correctly, they have been asked to constantly change their identities or to renounce them altogether. Some intellectuals, such as Isolde Charim in Austria, add to the fire by expressly declaring this development to be right and inevitable. But if one robs people of their identity, populists and demagogues offer their service in order to fill the vacuum by means of artificial identities – mostly those that originate from the worst periods of history, periods of hatred. In all probability, extremist movements will become much stronger in the years to come, as nothing is as yet done about their causes.
The Cosmopolitanism of the Elites
has undoubtedly become a historical necessity. All existential threats endangering modern mankind: the depletion of resources, the poisoning of nature (climate crisis), and the sharp increase in the risk of nuclear conflagration can only be solved globally. We have to understand that we all are now sitting in the same fragile boat. But we must not allow this cosmopolitanism to uproot and alienate people, it can never replace emotionally near partners and neighbors with an abstract love of strangers. Global thinking must be grounded in local community. In other words, globalism and regionalism must go hand in hand as genuine human community, the prerequisite for a fulfilled life, must be nourished by local affection.
1. Thilo Sarrazin had to suffer the most astonishing rabble-rousing in post-war Germany because he violated a taboo. He had committed a small mistake against the predominant scientific doctrine when he considered the possibility of genetically explaining the special capacity of the Jews. Apart from that, however, he attributed the lack of integration, especially of Arab and Turkish immigrants, exclusively to cultural causes. From a scientific point of view, even the most convinced cosmopolitans could not have objected to this point of view. Remember the great Alexis de Tocqueville, who spoke with a certain admiration of the fact that the North American Indians did not want to adapt to the white people’s way of life because their pride forbade them to do so: In their eyes, field and industrial work was the lot of slaves. Tocqueville, a descendant of a noble family, knew what he was talking about. As clearly as Sarrazin, he recognized the cultural reasons for such behavior – reasons certainly amenable to complete change in the long run, but not to a change overnight or even within one generation.
Even before Trump, it became apparent that German intellectuals cannot bear to look at reality as it is and prefer to persecute those who describe it without euphemisms. The self-declared decent and upright rather adhere to fake reality – reality as they would like to see it. But have we ever really been able to improve an existing situation without soberly analyzing it beforehand?