Rights and Duties – Lessons from War

Between the two poles of rights and duties – the demands of the individual on society and, conversely, the demands of society on the individual – history has moved since human communities exist. The overwhelming majority of all historical societies – especially the populous great cultures ranging from China to India and Europe to those of the New World – emphasized above all duties, i.e., the demands of the community on the individual. Peasants as the producers of food – who could make up as much as 90 percent of the population, depending on soil fertility and cultivation techniques – had either no rights at all or very limited ones. This statement even applies to the cradle of democracy, the Greek city-states, first and foremost to Athens. Slaves were equal to chattels, i.e. the inanimate inventory and livestock; but even free Athenians could invoke significant privileges only in comparison with slaves; vis-à-vis the demands of the state, i.e., vis-à-vis majority decisions, the individual had practically no rights. The community was everything, the individual by comparison nothing. Jacob Burckhardt once said that none of his contemporaries could have survived even 24 hours in a Greek city-state.

After World War II, this relationship between the individual and the community was not only criticized and doubted, but it was virtually turned upside down in all modern states of the West. Individuals were granted more and more rights, and the opposing term, duties, has since taken on an unpleasant connotation. It is suspected to imply paternalism, restriction, renunciation. The individual was suddenly supposed to be everything, society was supposed to be little or nothing. With her notorious statement that such a thing as society does not even exist, Margaret Thatcher gave an official consecration to this widespread conviction. It was now considered self-evident that the individual should insist on his rights. Social progress was measured by the extent to which the sovereign individual detached himself from the social sphere. “Self-realization” became the battle term of the sovereign individual vis-à-vis society. Each individual was allowed and expected to understand himself as an isolated universe so to speak – outside of space and time. The once generally accepted connection to a nation, a habitat called homeland, or to the people living in the same region or city was perceived as a restriction and confinement. Anyone who uttered words like homeland, nation, identity made himself suspect of reactionary thinking. Pointing out possible ties was understood as a limit to personal freedom and sovereignty. It is noteworthy, however, that it is the enemies of the sovereign individual who have massively promoted the fiction of its sovereignty.

Who are these enemies? First and foremost, industrial advertising, whose real purpose is not individual freedom but the training of citizens to become consuming puppets. The citizen as consumer has become a constant object of indoctrination. He is made to believe that he is a king whose elementary and supreme right is to personally acquire more and more material wealth in an eternally growing economy. The global citizen has been educated to rank the essential achievements of modern civilization – running water, electricity, supermarkets and, last not least, the personal car – among the basic human rights, the granting of which one would prefer to write into the preamble of modern constitutions.

And that’s ny no means all: people not only insist on lifelong consumption, but also demand an unconditional basic income so that their consumption dreams become a guaranteed right. Nor does this claim seem far-fetched, given that a rich minority has always enjoyed this privilege. Those who – by virtue of their own abilities or as lucky heirs favored by chance – dispose of a large fortune can increase it reliably and, so to speak, mechanically through interest and dividends – in other words: through the sweat and labor of others. If the majority now demands the same privilege for itself, it is hardly possible to reject such a demand as unfair. We know that the fish stinks first at the head, so it’s no wonder that the rest starts stinking too. But who will foot the bill? If everyone wants to live at the expense of others, there will be no one left to bear the cost. If everyone insists on their rights, who will take on the duties to realize them?

Obviously, something has got out of step. An imbalance, where the individual means everything and society nothing, cannot last long. In fact, the 21st century has brought about a rude awakening with regard both to society and to nature. Not only are all conceivable rights asserted against the state and any government voted out of office that does not guarantee them, but the sovereign individual has long since defended them just as uncompromisingly against nature. The question of whether nature can still live up to such “rights” in a world that will soon have ten billion people is not even asked. As a matter of fact, nature is no longer playing along, it can no longer meet our excessive demands. It surprises us with an environmental crisis that goes far beyond that of the climate. In the face of nature – its living space – the world society is suddenly faced with its duties.

And society, the fun society of sovereign individuals? The war on our doorstep has put a sudden end to fun. It makes us aware that there have always been and will always be times when the individual is nothing while society is everything. Able-bodied men of Ukraine are not at all asked whether or not they are willing to fight for their wives and children, for nation and homeland (many of them would certainly prefer to fly to some island in the Pacific). They are simply obliged to do so by the state and, if they desert, they are shot. This happens in Ukraine as well as in Russia, and it happened and happens everywhere in the world where a government starts a war. It mercilessly pushes the sovereign individual off his self-built pedestal and demands from him, without the least caring about his personal opinion, the greatest sacrifices, including his life. As under Hitler, Stalin and currently under their successor Wladimir Putin, the brutal encroachment on personal sovereignty can be due to mere dictatorial despotism or – as currently in Ukraine – to self-defense for the sake of survival.

This sudden dismantling of the sovereign individual seems wholly incomprehensible to most Western people. Up to the war, most of us believed that we owed everything to ourselves and nothing to others. But in truth the change had been announced beforehand. The worldwide protest against capitalism and its neoliberal variant was the expression of a latent ambiguity, which almost turned into a contradiction. We readily condemn the egoism that is so visibly expressed in both isms, but we do so in the name of an egocentrism that insists on our own personal claims. The extreme right, like its apparent opposite, the extreme left, always contrasted the self-realization of the individual with that of the collective. When the pendulum of social development swings too far in one direction, counter-movements invariably arise, aiming at the extreme in the opposite direction. Western societies have pursued the cult of the individual to the point of social disintegration; the counterforces, whose leading propagandist is Vladimir Putin, want to weld the individuals together into a single body that will follow the leader to its own demise if necessary.

When talking about community, we should not listen to the seducers and populists, that is, the fanatics from the right or the left.  But neither should their message be ignored. No one lives on an island; man is a zoon politikon, as Aristotle already knew. In our thoughts, our world view, but also in our daily behavior and dealings, we are deeply influenced by our environment – regardless of whether we admit this or not. Precisely because Goethe, Heinrich Heine or Thomas Mann were so deeply rooted in their immediate human surrounding, they could also be citizens of the world.

But this rootedness is threatened. Modern techno-society has initiated a process that has transformed an increasing number of people into anonymous functions for maintaining the economic machinery. People, however, cannot be permanently reduced to functions and machines without giving rise to simmering discontent and growing resistance. In several Western countries, the extreme right has perceived this discontent and uses it to justify its demand for a renewed sense of community, national identity, solidarity etc. That in itself would not be reprehensible if it were not usually accompanied by calls for primitive hatred: Hatred of everything that is different and foreign. But nevertheless: the response to these populists and demagogues must be more than a mere fight and repulsion. We must recognize the distress that made their emergence possible in the first place – uprooting and loss of personal relatedness.

Europe – though by no means the rest of the world – has enjoyed seventy years of peace and prosperity. It enjoyed both to such an extent that its citizens eventually thought only of rights; they no longer wanted to hear anything about duties. For a whole decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we were even given the illusion that an age of eternal peace had finally dawned. In truth, the battle of the three nuclear superpowers for world dominium had only been postponed for a short while. Nor was, unluckily, the Ukraine aware of this fact. It insisted on its right to choose freely between Europe and Russia. But Putin had no intention to grant such freedom to the ‘”Slavic brother nation”. The Ukrainians had to pay for this freedom with the widespread murder of their citizens and the bombing of their cities.

If Europe wants to prevent its people from being murdered and its cities devastated in just the same way, it must equally renounce the free choice between the opposing blocs. Whether our intellectuals want it or not – and most of them definitely do not! – we must nevertheless make an unequivocal choice: between American plutocracy plus military-economic complex on the one hand and Russian dictatorship on the other, behind whose civilian façade intelligence and military pull the strings. The U.S. defense of Europe during the Cold War and, presently, Russia’s actions in Ukraine, hardly to be surpassed in their brutality, may have made this choice easy, but for Europe it will certainly mean much greater dependence – dependence upon the big transatlantic brother. Europe’s defense capabilities are of little value without the United States, and even our economy will be dependent on the U.S. energy drip. From now on, the struggle for supremacy in determining the coming world order will not let up for a moment. A multipolar world is no longer possible since the warning time for a nuclear first strike is getting shorter every year, and everyone is arming and arming – not only the US, but also its rivals, who outwardly behave as propagandists of a multipolar world and yet strive with all their might to oust the previous primus in order to stand at the top themselves.

In the best case, this will lead to more solidarity – and solidarity means nothing other than a better balance between rights and duties: a return to more responsibility of the individual toward society. But we should also be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Then Europe will have to experience what long since happened in Russia and, more recently, in the United States under Donald Trump: fundamental rights are being eroded in order to make society more resistant to the outside world and to cement the rule of the propertied classes at home.