Culture is rooted in human freedom. That is why history has made possible so many ways of thinking and living – and, of course, that is why it produces people with radically different beliefs. Culture makes people similar to each other within a common living space – that is its most obvious and immediate purpose. It creates a foundation of community, the most visible expression of which is a shared language. But at the same time, it erects barriers to the outside world of other life designs, other convictions. Cultural differences can be so profound that people hate each other, persecute each other and want to put each other to death. The fact that some eat pork and others cows or that some believe in private and others in collective property, still provides sufficient reason even today to mercilessly pursue one’s fellows. But today’s Germany also provides proof of the divisive power of culture. And this proof seems all the more strange and absurd as German intellectuals are particularly keen on proving to themselves and the rest of the world that all human beings are equal to one another – so that all differences are merely fictitious.
But a radical cultural contrast unmistakably exists
and it separates the self-declared good from the other, the evil Germans. The first are open-minded cosmopolitans, who regard all borders as obsolete. In their view, the free migration of peoples is inevitable, because others have just the same rights as we – in principle we must therefore let them all come to us if their own homeland fails to offer them a viable future. Moreover, they even see such migration as desirable, because the encounter with other people ultimately turns into a gain and enrichment for all parties concerned.
Evil Germans, on the other hand, are afraid of foreigners, they seek to seal themselves off, they raise walls and insist on their peculiarity, which they call “identity” and hold to be threatened. As a rule, they believe their own identity to be far above anything the strangers could offer them. From a historical point of view, it should be noted that evil Germans hardly played a role after the war until around the end of the 1980s. But at the latest since the opening of the borders in 2015 their number has swollen to such a degree that by now they possibly constitute the silent majority within Germany.
However, this social cleavage is by no means restricted to Germany. Throughout Europe, as well as in the US under Trump, in Russia under Putin and in China under Xi, those who reject the cosmopolitanism of intellectuals are more and more now setting the public tone. “Good Americans” flock around the Democratic flag, “bad Americans” are more likely to be found among Republicans.
The cultural struggle between the two camps
has long since ceased to be limited to the level of intellectual disputes as between the new and old German states, which are still separated by a wall – a wall in people’s minds. Visible walls too are shooting up all over the world. “180 kilometers in Cyprus, 248 kilometers in Korea, 550 kilometers between India and Pakistan. We see walls and fences to prevent illegal migration, including 180 kilometers in proto-fascist Hungary, 764 kilometers with which Turkey separates itself from Syria, 1130 kilometers between the USA and Mexico (3100 kilometers are to become so) and approx. 4000 kilometers with which India isolates itself from Bangladesh. 750 kilometers between the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Israeli settlements, 900 kilometers between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, 2500 kilometers in the Western Sahara claimed by Morocco.”
Of course, all this is by no means new. The largest man-made structure ever built, the Great Wall of China, had no other purpose than to ward off migrants at China’s external border – migrants who, then as now, were called enemies and barbarians.
However, there are people who see the matter differently, as they ascribe to walls the philanthropic purpose of establishing trade relations. “Historical border fortifications such as the Limes, the Roman border wall, were used to levy duties and taxes, but were not inspired by the idea of keeping people from moving from one area to another.“
The relationship between the two camps
of cosmopolitans and identitarians – I would like to use this term in its broadest sense – is marked not only by mutual incomprehension, but also by blatant hatred on both sides. For the cosmopolitans, the identitarians are a kind of mentally and morally retarded savages who, due to their lack of education, should rather not open their mouths at all. For the identitarians, on the other hand, the cosmopolitans represent an arrogant upper class, such as the nobles of the Ancien regime, who in the French Revolution, not least because of their arrogance, ended up being hung from the streetlamps by those “retarded savages”. Those who follow the arguments between the two camps in the media become aware that although history rarely repeats itself, it does indeed rhyme – as Mark Twain once said.
But this unfortunate struggle between “good” and “evil” citizens
does not lead us any further, it only divides Germany ever more deeply – and today it even divides large parts of the rest of the world. One day, it could even degenerate again into bloody persecution. That’s why I think it’s too shallow a procedure just to declare yourself a partisan of one of the two camps – for a lover of foreign cultures like myself, that would of course be the camp of cosmopolitans. So comfortable a step only deepens and consolidates the division. Instead we should endeavor to understand its causes – and hence to overcome them through understanding. That is the intention of the present article.
At first glance, the reason for the new cultural struggle is hard to grasp, because everywhere in the world conditions have become increasingly similar – one may even say: similar to the point of complete indistinguishability. “We register… A rapid and profound convergence of lifestyles and cultural forms; all hotels, all shopping streets, all infrastructures throughout the world today look much more similar than they did twenty, thirty, forty years ago.” Indeed! And this convergence is taking place above all in the field of daily work, where people spend most of their conscious lives, in other words in offices, workshops and the centers of international corporations. Everywhere these are exposed to the same principles of economic rationality. Just as there is no Indian, German or Chinese natural science, because the laws of nature are the same all over the globe, the laws of the economy have also been increasingly harmonized, because the whole world, from New York to Beijing, always adopts the model that promises the greatest output of profit and production.
It is important to be aware of this trend towards global uniformity
because it explains why man feels so homeless in our modern “Brave New World”. He feels himself an arbitrarily interchangeable cog of the great economic mega-machine that ruthlessly exploits him, as long he satisfies its demands, but rejects him without mercy when he becomes useless – this too is part and parcel of purely economic rationality. As long as working men still believe in bettering their situation – receiving higher wages, more holidays, etc. – they may at least feel some personal pride. This applied to most Germans during the first forty years after the end of the war. But since then the upward movement has now come to a halt: “socio-political disputes have shifted quickly, deliberately and inconspicuously from the struggle for social equality to the struggle for symbolic recognition. In other words, social policy turned into identity policy.“
As we know, this has already happened in the past
and it happened in a disastrous way for that matter. In 1929, the Great Depression having slopped from the US to Europe, destroyed a then unmistakable economic rise of the German economy with one single punch. Millions of workers not only found their renascent pride in modest progress completely destroyed, but these people ended up as beggars in front of public soup kitchens. they felt worthless because their worth was indeed reduced to zero. That proved to be the high noon for demagogues. Hitler declared that, “never in my life have I felt so well disposed and inwardly contented satisfied as in these days /of collapse/” (Joachim Fest, 1973).
What remains for the millions of cogs
in the economic mega-machine, when they find their work useless and themselves worthless? What remains for them if they are smiled at for their stupidity by the intellectual class, which is usually much better off in material terms and more solidified in their self-esteem? How do they feel when cosmopolitans look with much greater interest at the plight of foreigners rather than at the misery of their fellow countrymen? It is quite true that lots of German cosmopolitans have taken care of maltreated Syrians with the greatest personal sacrifice – and the world has rightly admired them for their unselfishness. But did they previously go into the new federal states, where instead of the “blooming landscapes” promised by Helmut Kohl there is so much dreary neglect and psychological emptiness? Many of those people feel abandoned, despised and betrayed (even their young women running away from them to the more prosperous West). They now take revenge by becoming dangerous.
What do I mean by this?
I think we should understand that demagogues and populists are never solely to blame for later misfortune, e.g. for the fact that incited masses tied nobles to the streetlamps or that they turned minorities into strangers whom they then persecuted with murderous intent. True, it is the agitators who bear the immediate responsibility, but the reason why they were given that mischievous chance reaches deeper and goes further back. The disaster begins at the very moment when the masses are being abandoned by an elite that no longer talks to them. The elites have forgotten that “the process of civilization… is unthinkable without people having learned, despite all cultural, religious, mental differences, to meet peacefully and to learn from each other.”
These are true and beautiful words, but even those who proclaim them do not apply them to the specific case. Today’s “enlightened cosmopolitans” look with scorn and contempt on that silent and – in their eyes – brutish majority that clusters around the German AfD, the Italian Lega, the French Rassemblement National, the Hungarian Fidesz and the Polish Party for Justice and Law. Demonizing these people and excluding them from public discourse, they certainly don’t want to learn anything from them. The cosmopolitan elite feels too aloof and intellectually too far above these “savages” to condescend to any dialogue. So, the bridges are deliberately broken off by both sides and “the process of civilization” is likely to be harmed. In the US, the camps are now so irreconcilably opposed to each other that state failure and a subsequent state collapse no longer seem unthinkable.
As long as the elites feel responsible for the masses,
i.e. talk and argue with them, there is little danger. Until Louis 14, the majority of French nobles lived on their estates. Although they ruthlessly exploited the peasantry, they were at all times visible and approachable masters – and that gave them prestige, for in every culture the mass of people orient themselves towards the elites – as a rule they even look up to them with awe and veneration. But Louis 14 ordered the nobles to the capital and to Versailles. From then on, the peasants saw only the tax collectors, the lords themselves had become invisible. The French elite no longer had anything to do with their own people, instead they felt closely connected with their fellow nobles abroad, i.e. with the enlightened elite in England, Germany and Italy. To be sure, the nobility was cosmopolitan in the best sense of the word but at the same time it had become irresponsible towards its own people – in the worst sense of the word…
In this case, too, history rhymes
It does so nowadays too, as is, for instance, proven by the development of German entrepreneurship. The latter worked quite well when there were family businesses, where the boss was visible and approachable to all his employees. There was no need to love each other, mutual respect and the ability to communicate were sufficient forces binding all parts together. However, as soon as the companies grew into large corporations with complex hierarchies, direct human contact got progressively lost. The bond between the elite and the working majority became thinner and thinner and was often completely broken. This is no different today than it was in the 18th century before the French Revolution.
We are dealing here with a real cultural struggle,
a struggle between above and below. If cosmopolitans claim that people are the same everywhere, just because they have the same genetic heritage for about fifty thousand years, we should be aware that this is only half the truth – and for that matter a highly misleading one. We are equal only when just being born, because then we are all equally malleable. But already in the first months cultural moulding starts – and it can make us fundamentally different. The lost masses, however, were made equal – within the uniform economic mega-machine they feel deprived of all identity, which might give them their own value and self-respect. Not only do they feel betrayed by their own elite when these are more concerned with foreigners than with the fate of their poorer countrymen – the mere presence of strangers who do not share their own way of thinking, feeling and talking makes them feel even more insecure. If the elite doesn’t listen to them, how much less will the strangers do?
The mistrust of strangers, which demagogues easily turn into hatred, is ultimately rooted in an agonizing feeling of insecurity. One looks for value and justification for one’s own existence, but the elite has nothing to offer; instead it has turned away, seeks communication with like-minded people everywhere else in the world – like the cosmopolitan French nobility did before the outbreak of revolution.
What does this mean for the future?
Nothing good when you keep in mind that even the most intelligent representatives of the aristocratic elite, ten years before the outbreak of the revolution, reacted only with derisive laughter to prophecies of the kind that their king would end under the guillotine before the end of the century. Up to the very last moment, such an assertion was simply dismissed as irresponsible, stupid and ridiculous. Matters remained pretty much the same up to the present day. We know that the most dangerous crises are as a rule never predicted. Even today, everyone must reckon with a mocking laugh, if prophesizing that the disregarded masses once again led by populists and demagogues could again make history – disastrous history. But this always happens when parts of the population separate themselves from the others and forget the most important social truth: “A humane world is one of intact interpersonal relationships.”
* The passages in italics are all taken from the clever book by Harald Welzer: “Es könnte alles auch anders sein” (It could all be different). Welzer is excellently informed and masterly rides all saddles of skillful argumentation. In my eyes, the book has only one fairly obvious mistake. The author knows exactly which taboos he must observe in order not to upset the cosmopolitan audience which he addresses.