Taking Oneself Seriously Again
Asking the Simple Questions in a Different Way
While people in the Arab world are attempting to take the first steps towards true democracy, it seems that the established democracies of the West are being increasingly eroded.
I haven’t written an article for about three years, because I don’t know what else to write any more. It’s all so obvious: the abrogation of democracy, the increasing social and economic polarisation of rich and poor, the ruination of the welfare state, privatisation, and with it the economisation of all areas of life (education, the health system, the public transport system etc.), the blindness towards right-wing extremism, the drivel in the media that jabber incessantly so as not to have to address the real problems, open and covert censorship (sometimes as direct rejection, sometimes in the form of ‘quotas’ or ‘formats’), and so on and so forth…
Intellectuals are silent. We hear nothing from the universities, nothing from so-called intellectual guiding lights; a brief, solitary flicker here and there, then all is dark once more.
I can only repeat the platitude: profits are being privatised, losses socialised. And I wish I could come up with counter-examples.
When you are served the same insanity day after day as something that is meant to be self-evident, it is only a matter of time before you start believing that you yourself are sick and abnormal. I shall attempt to summarise a few thoughts that seem to me to be important:
1. To speak of an attack on democracy is euphemistic. A situation in which the minority of a minority is permitted – that is to say, it is legal – to seriously damage the common good for the purpose of their own enrichment is post-democratic. Society itself is at fault, because it does not defend itself against being looted; because it is not capable of electing representatives who will look after its needs.
2. Every day we hear that governments must ‘reassure the markets’ and ‘win back the trust of the markets’. By ‘markets’ they mean above all the stock exchanges and financial markets, that is to say: those agents that speculate in their own interest or in the interest of others in order to make the greatest possible profit. Aren’t these the same people who have relieved the body politic of inconceivable billions? The highest representatives of our people should fight to gain their trust?
3. We are outraged, and rightly so, at Vladimir Putin’s use of the term ‘guided democracy’. Why didn’t Angela Merkel have to resign when she spoke of ‘market-conforming democracy’?
4. Capitalism does not need democracy; it needs stable conditions. The reactions to the referendum that was announced in Greece and to its swift retraction make clear that functioning democratic structures can act as a counterweight to and brake on capitalism, and that they are also perceived in this way.
5. With the 2008 economic crisis, if not before, I believed that our society possessed enough of an instinct for self-preservation to protect itself effectively. Not only was this an error: that hope has transformed itself into its very opposite.
6. With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, some ideologies acquired a hegemony that was so undisputed that it came to be taken for granted. One example of this would be privatisation. Privatisation was seen as something unconditionally positive. Everything that was not privatised, that remained public property and was not subjected to the pursuit of private profit, was deemed ineffectual and not customer-friendly. This created a public atmosphere that had to lead sooner or later to the self-disempowerment of society.
7. Another ideology that has flourished out of all proportion is that of growth. The Chancellor had already decreed years ago that ‘without growth, everything is nothing’. It is impossible to speak of the euro crisis without speaking about these two ideologies.
8. The language of the politicians who are supposed to represent us is no longer capable of conceiving reality (I have already experienced something similar in East Germany). It is a language of self-certainty that no longer tests and puts itself into perspective with reference to any counterpart. Politics has degenerated into a vehicle, a bellows to fan the flames of growth. Growth is seen as the only source of salvation; every action is subordinated to this goal. The citizen is reduced to a consumer. Growth in itself means nothing whatsoever. The social ideal becomes the playboy who consumes as much as possible in the shortest possible time. A war would bring about a massive increase in growth.
9. The simple questions: ‘Who benefits from this?’, ‘Who earns money from this?’ have become indelicate. Aren’t we all in the same boat? Don’t we all share the same interests? Anyone who doubts this is a class warrior. The social and economic polarisation of society has taken place amid vociferous avowals that we all share the same interests. You only need to walk through Berlin. In the better quarters the few unrenovated houses are usually schools, nurseries, old people’s homes, offices, swimming baths or hospitals. In the so-called problem districts the unrenovated public buildings are less remarkable; there, poverty is evidenced by people’s missing teeth. Today the demagogic pronouncement is: all of us have lived beyond our means; everyone is greedy.
10. Our society was and is being systematically driven to the wall by the people’s democratically elected representatives, in that it is being robbed of its revenues. The maximum tax rate in Germany was lowered by the Schröder government from 53% to 42%; business tax rates (business tax and corporation tax) were almost halved between 1997 and 2009, from 57.5% to 29.4%. No one should be surprised that the coffers are empty even though our gross domestic product increases year after year.
11. The money given out on the one hand is the money that is lacking on the other. The money that then remains with the wealthy has not – if we believe the statistics – been put into investments, as was hoped, but into more lucrative business on the financial markets. On the other hand, all over Europe welfare benefits are being cut to distribute bailout packages to banks that have lost money through bad investments. The ‘legitimate resources of social democracy are being […] consumed by this stupendous redistribution to the benefit of the rich’ (Elmar Altvater, 2011).
12. A story. What was once sold to us as the antithesis between East and West Germany is now presented to us as the antithesis between states. In March I was presenting a translation of one of my books in Porto in Portugal. A question from the audience caused the atmosphere, which until then had been one of general friendly interest, to switch abruptly. Suddenly we were just Germans and Portuguese sitting opposite one another in hostility. The question was an ugly one: whether we – meaning me, a German – were now succeeding in doing with the euro what we didn’t succeed in doing back then with our tanks. No one in the audience dissented. And I suddenly reacted – which was bad enough – just as I was supposed to, i.e. as a German. Nobody was forcing anyone to buy a Mercedes, I said, affronted; and they should be happy if they were getting loans cheaper than those made to private customers. I could practically hear the newspaper rustle between my lips.
In the uproar that followed my riposte I finally came to my senses. And, as I had the microphone in my hand, I stammered in my imperfect English that I had reacted as stupidly as they had; that we were all falling into the same trap if we, as Portuguese and German people, reflexively sided with our own flags as if we were at a football game. As if this were about Germans and Portuguese, and not top and bottom, that is: about those who had brought about this situation in both Portugal and Germany, and had made money out of it, and were continuing to make money out of it.
13. Democracy would be if politics were to intervene in the existing economic structure by imposing taxes, laws and checks and forcing the players in the markets, above all in the financial markets, to follow a path that is compatible with the interests of society. It all boils down to the simple questions: who benefits? Who earns money from it? Is it good for our society? Ultimately the question would be: what kind of society do we want? That, for me, would be democracy.
I will stop here. I would like to tell you about the others, too: about a professor who said he had returned to the standpoint for his worldview when he was fifteen years old; about a study by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich that examined the inter-relations of companies and came up with the number 147: 147 companies that had divided up the world between them, the fifty most powerful of which were banks and insurance companies (with the exception of one oil company); I would like to tell you that it is a question of taking oneself seriously again and finding like-minded people, because you can’t speak another language on your own. And about how I felt the desire to speak up again.
This article first appeared on 12th January 2012 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. © Süddeutsche Zeitung GmbH, Munich 2012.
born in Dresden in 1962, is an author whose most recent volume of essays, Orangen und Engel. Italienische Skizzen [Oranges and Angels: Italian Sketches], was published by Berlin Verlag in 2010.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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