Religion of Fear?
Was the Green Party so successful in Germany recently because it served a religious need? This is one of the main hypotheses in Norbert Bolz’s new book.
By Holger Moos
Easily-invoked and constant fear is considered typically German. The word angst is even used in English with an existentialist meaning. In Die Avantgarde der Angst, Nobert Bolz formulates the hypothesis that a “political theology” has arisen in Germany over the past few decades around the environmental movement. This substitute religion does not live from promises of salvation, but from the expectation of calamity. The clock is always ticking down.
Paired with this expectation of calamity is an ascetic programme to save the world. The maxim is if an individual changes their life, is more environmentally aware, turns away from the capitalist system and from overly scientific and technical civilization, there is hope to avert the dreaded apocalypse.
The result is that fears are reacted to not with prudence or risk assessment, but fears are incited and exploited – also and especially in the media – according to the motto: Only bad news is good news. A fear culture, indeed a fear industry, has emerged in which “accommodating scientists” provide the suitable “Cassandrian research.”
Fear of our own powerFor Bolz, the “principle of responsibility” established by the philosopher Hans Jonas is essentially an “ethic of fear of our own power.” Bolz assumes that the humanist-educated middle class, especially in Germany, is “afraid of technology and risk averse,” in other words has an “anti-technology affect”. The anxious populace no longer trusts that (environmental) problems can be solved technologically. Technology is no longer seen as part of the solution, but as the actual problem. According to Bolz, this is a rejection of the ideas of enlightenment and progress, a “betrayal of the modern age.” As a result, a view of history according to which everything is only getting worse has won majority appeal.
In the history of ideas, Bolz also goes back to Walter Benjamin, the “cult author of left-wing intellectuals,” who experienced his era as “a single catastrophe that incessantly piles rubble upon rubble.” Based on this understanding of his time, Benjamin used metaphors that the environmental movement as well as Fridays for Future activists resort to: Benjamin saw the revolution as “grasping for the emergency brake,” which would bring about a “real state of emergency”.
Arduous hypothesesIn his book, the media scientist delivers very arduous hypotheses that bring him close to the deniers of climate change. Bolz is known for his pointed, sometimes provocative opinions, which he regularly spreads in aphoristic manner on Twitter. For his “cudgel statements” – as Jörg Scheller and Wolfgang Ullrich call his “hail of tweets” in Pop magazine – he also has to take criticism.
As understandable as Bolz’s call for more prudence and less emotion and his lament over the infantilisation of our society are, his book itself doesn’t shy from fanning fears. After all, Bolz warns of an alleged eco-dictatorship and the looming end of the enlightened, rational modern age. Bolz has therefore also internalised the principle of our time: If you want attention, you have to exaggerate both the positive and the negative.
Norbert Bolz: Die Avantgarde der Angst
Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2020. 191 S.