BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 18 MAR 16
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Issue 23

Chariots of Fire

Political rhetoric in art schools, the refugee crisis and Germany's new far right

BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 18 MAR 16

‘Self-destruction is not a moral obligation.’ These words were voiced by Tatjana Festerling, a spokeswoman for German’s right-wing Pegida movement, during a speech at a demonstration in Dresden on Monday 22 February. She continued: ‘And when words no longer work, the streets themselves will speak.’ Festerling intended this as a justification for the mob who had angrily blocked the arrival of a bus filled with refugees to the Saxon town of Clausnitz a few days previously.

Festerling took the sentence about self-destruction from an interview (published earlier this year in Cicero magazine) with the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, author of Critique of Cynical Reason (1983) and rector at the Karlsruhe College of Arts and Design (HfG) from 2001 to 2015, where he still holds a professorship. In his interview, Sloterdijk calls for an ‘efficient common border policy’ in Europe. He doesn’t explain in detail what he would consider efficient, but one presumes he means that ‘self-destruction’ threatens those, like Germany, who are too welcoming and helpful and not those, like Hungary, who put up barricades of razor wire.

One might say: You can’t choose who quotes you. Or: With new friends like these, who needs old enemies? Or: Just another philosopher being provocative. But it’s not a trivial matter when the current spokeswoman for Pegida borrows from the phraseology of Peter Sloterdijk. The philosopher who for ten years, together with best-selling author Rüdiger Safranski, chaired a popular philosophy show on German television, is for the time being taken up as a sloganeer by neo-right-wing agitators. Having shouted ‘Lügenpresse!’ (lying press) often enough, why not shout Sloterdijk’s ‘Lügenäther’ (lying airwaves) instead? Safranski, who has published books on Goethe, Nietzsche and Heidegger, is also doing his best to make suggestions. ‘Germany is being flooded’ (a slogan that has long made the rounds among radical right-wingers like the National Democratic Party’s Udo Voigt or the blogger Karl-Michael Merkle, alias (‘Michael Mannheimer’) might be revised along the lines of Safranski’s formulation: ‘Flood Germany? I’d like to be asked first.’

Why are these thinkers talking up a storm? The first thing that comes to mind is that old men, retired or feeling otherwise sidelined, while also working on erotic epistolary novels (Sloterdijk’s publisher Suhrkamp has announced a book in this vein for May), are afraid of losing prestige, prompting them to go mouthing off in search of political adventure. But of course, this is not a sufficient explanation. It is worth trying to understand their underlying discursive strategies. As the historian and researcher into right-wing extremism Helmut Kellershohn noted in a recent television programme on 3sat, Sloterdijk is trying to create the impression that his modifications of long-standing right-wing patterns of thought are ‘the expression of some deeper idea’. The same applies to Safranski, who in the same programme claims that the AfD (Alternative for Germany, the populist right-wing party) is currently being ‘pushed to the margins under a barrage of defamation’. He is speaking here, it should be noted, about a party whose national spokeswoman, Frauke Petry, in January called for live ammunition to be used at the borders to keep refugees out; the party whose parliamentary chairman in the federal state of Thuringia, Björn Höcke, openly crowed about Germany’s ‘thousand year past’ and ‘thousand year future’ at a rally in Magdeburg last October (a clear reference to the Nazi dream of a ‘thousand-year Reich’). Wait – just who is marginalizing whom here? Safranski employs the same rhetorical inversion constantly used by the neo-right-wingers: painting oneself as the downtrodden  victim of agitation. Festerling stated in her speech that instead of being treated with the ‘well-tempered cruelty’ that Sloterdijk recommends for refugees, Pegida activists and authors of right-wing literature are being robbed of their very existence by a cruelty that is ‘annihilating, merciless, and full of hardship.’

Perhaps one must take a cue from political scientist Herfried Münkler, who recently published an insightful article in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Münkler wonders what happens if one took the utterances of Sloterdijk and Safranski not merely as rhetorically inflated resentment, but as if they were actually linked to evidence-based political decision-making. Close the borders? OK – so what happens next? Münkler concludes that Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Safranski accuses of a Gesinnungs-ethik (Max Weber’s term for an ‘ethics of conviction’), is quite simply more intelligent. Anticipating that a closure of the borders last summer could have sparked a chain reaction leading to the collapse of the states of Southeast Europe, Münkler argues, she played for time instead of space; with her decision to accept refugees, Merkel won time to tackle the root causes of their flight and come to agreements with other states, instead of conjuring up catastrophic conditions along the western Balkan route. Those, on the other hand, who seek their salvation in the ‘territorial imperative’ (Sloterdijk), do not even consider the consequences, thus revealing, as Münkler puts it, the ‘strategic simple-mindedness of their empty talk’.

By contrast, AfD politicians certainly have considered the consequences – accepting if not welcoming them. Even when not going as far as Petry in calling for the use of live ammunition, they are announcing, for example, that we will ‘have to put up with ugly images on television’ when the border has been closed, and even if refugees were to go on hunger strike, we would have to ‘unbendingly sit out this phase until the tide of refugees ebbs’. These statements, made in late January at an election event in the placid town of Bad Dürrheim, were made by Marc Jongen. He is deputy spokesman and programme coordinator for the AfD in Baden-Württemberg, as well as a member of the AfD’s federal programme commission. Jongen also lectures in philosophy at the HfG  in Karlsruhe, where for many years he was assistant to Rector Sloterdijk.

On his website, Jongen writes that he distinguishes between his two roles: ‘My political commitment is entirely independent of my various academic contacts and activities.’ This may be true insofar as he doesn’t make the mistake of agitating within the art college itself. Conversely, however, his self-portrayal in the political field constantly leverages his academic seriousness and philosophical reputation. Under an article he published in Cicero in January 2014, which is nothing other than a eulogy to the AfD and its political objectives, the author is described first as a ‘lecturer in philosophy at HfG Karlsruhe and assistant of the rector, Peter Sloterdijk’, and only then as ‘deputy spokesman and programme coordinator of AfD Baden-Württemberg’. In spite of this, as a matter of principle, one must of course accept Jongen’s ongoing activity at the HfG Karlsruhe – or threaten the basic tenets of academic freedom and freedom of opinion. What does seem legitimate, however, is what the authors of books appearing in the series ‘HfG Research’ had called for in an open letter in early December: that Jongen should be suspended from his role as editor of this series (something which in the meantime indeed has happened). Jongen had cried out that the architectural theorist Stephan Trüby, one of the letter’s signatories, and the art historian Beat Wyss  – who teaches at the HfG – were agitating against him ‘with intent to destroy his career’. This recalls Festerling’s aforementioned choice of words. Not much sign of the ‘well-tempered thymos’ and ‘self-assured confidence’ that Jongen lays claim to for himself in the same text.

‘Thymos’, a favourite concept of Sloterdijk’s, is one of the three constituent forces of the human psyche in Plato’s allegory of the soul as a chariot: alongside reason, which steers the chariot, there are two winged horses, one of which represents desires (epithymetikon) and the other high spirits or anger (thymoeides). According to Plato, reason as charioteer must achieve a balance between these two driving forces. The high priests of ‘thymos’ seem to have completely lost this balance. It’s time to refute their untenable assertions. 

Translated by Nicholas Grindell.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.