Germany’s self-hating conservatives

Anti-modernism is gaining ground among the German right.

In his new book Generation Reform, right-wing political scientist Paul Nolte argues that, in comparison to other Western European states, Germany is currently experiencing not only ‘delayed modernisation’, but ‘blocked modernisation’.

There is little to distinguish between Christian Democrat Nolte’s analysis and that put forward by Gabor Steingart, a card-carrying member of the party of government, the left-of-centre Social Democratic Party (SPD), in Germany: The Decline of a Superstar, an extended essay on the contemporary malaise that has been on the bestseller lists for more than a month.

Yet where Steingart’s essay presents the facts and figures that illustrate the relative decline of the German economy, it also gives an upbeat message about how things might be improved. He clearly wants to supply intellectual support to the governing SPD’s policies of welfare state retrenchment and labour market reform, marking the SPD out as the party of post-welfare modernisation. His essay is an appeal to politicians, business and the public to pull up their socks and make the necessary effort.

By contrast, Nolte points in a different direction. He would prefer Germany’s conservative opposition parties, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), to shed the confidence of postwar German free-market conservatism and replace it with a ‘twenty-first century ethics of caution’, a focus on social inclusion and sustainability.

While Social Democrat Steingart still holds out hope that political reform can cure the German ‘disease’, Nolte’s conservative vision is premised on the sombre expectation that the malaise will continue. Nolte proposes a new conservatism more closely attuned to ecological sensitivity, which, he argues, has begun to blend well with a new ‘openness to religion’. Echoing the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who has been expressing similar ideas recently, Nolte argues that we are living in a ‘post-secular’ world, in which Christian values are acquiring new relevance, especially when it comes to ‘...not leaving cultures of poverty and dependence, poor educational standards and lack of self-reliance to themselves, but confronting and breaking them up’.

Here Nolte follows the American model, where fears about the so-called ‘underclass’ form the starting point of a conservatism that presents itself as the guardian of civil mores and social inclusion. In the postwar era, Germany’s Christian Democrats stood for a progressive political project, at least insofar as they identified strongly with scientific, technical and economic progress. Now, Nolte proposes a conservatism that assumes the role of therapist in a world increasingly geared towards fear, disorientation and stagnation.

There is political uncertainty across the developed world, and it is perhaps stronger in Germany than anywhere else. Politics, values, business, science, administration, public debate, private life - all seem to lack any defined interconnection and therefore tend to drift apart in different and unpredictable directions. That this is an intolerable state of affairs in need of a remedy is the core, if inexplicit, concern in the current reform debates in Germany.  But it is being debated in ways that are likely to accelerate the spiral of disintegration, rather than turn it around.

Contemporary social commentary expresses a certain contempt for the recent past. Barely a stone is left unturned in the search to discover that gross abuse apparently lurks behind what we previously regarded as fairly acceptable social arrangements. Though Steingart aims to present a positive vision of change, even he is not immune to this misanthropic disdain for the postwar era. He argues that the expansion of the German welfare state in the 1950s was a cynical grab for votes on the part of the then-governing Christian Democrats.

This is a slightly unusual statement from a Social Democrat and seems designed to distance the SPD from the welfare state, which is today held in disdain. More importantly, the retrospective assumption that only the most cynical motives could have inspired welfare reforms in the past - which, for example, provided Germans with a pension they could actually live on for the first time - is typical of contemporary social criticism. Such critiques tend to project into the past our negative assumptions about the present. This is something that Steingart and Nolte share in common.

There is a kind of self-hatred directed against everything Western societies once regarded as positive attributes. This is not critical stock-taking, which can be a good thing, but the expression of a crisis of confidence, which now runs so deep that even indisputably positive outcomes of Western modernisation are viewed with scepticism. The flipside is a profound crisis of authority engulfing even those institutions and beliefs hitherto regarded as integral to modern market democracies.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that a new kind of anti-modernism is gaining ground in conservative thought. If even the welfare state is now seen as being the result of bad maths and cynical electioneering, how can writers and politicians who lay claim to the conservative label defend anything good in their postwar tradition? As a result, some have begun to thrash about, seeking guidance from older pre- or anti-democratic strands in nineteenth-century conservatism. In this context, political arrangements that once were seen as being essential to Western democracies are becoming the targets of vitriolic disdain.

Radical conservative currents are gaining access to the political mainstream. Hans-Herrmann Hoppe, the German-born American Professor of Business Science and member of the conservative Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama, has found a highly receptive audience in Germany for his pamphlet Democracy - The God that Failed.

Hoppe shares the view held on the right-wing fringes of American politics that not only parties, but even the state itself belongs on the rubbish heap of history. He calls for an ‘elitist civil law society’, where autonomous local communities led by individuals with ‘natural authority’ govern themselves - and where those who possess nothing have no say. Hoppe calls for the foundation of ‘free territories’, in which, of course, there would be neither immigrants nor welfare systems.

His pamphlet may seem eccentric, but the proximity of his views to many current assumptions is striking - which explains the positive response it has received. Hoppe’s harangue about the state as a body that only devours money, conducts unnecessary wars and prevents people from living ‘naturally’ is far from alien in today’s anti-political climate. Though Hoppe presents an extreme version of the belief that modernity has nothing good to offer, he is certainly not alone in thinking this is so.

The tendency to draw regressive conclusions from the current crisis of confidence is gaining strength. The question is, how can relations between people and politics be made more productive and forward-looking? Though the word ‘participation’ has never been used as much as it is today, the distance between people and politics has rarely been bigger. This is related to the disparaging view of the citizen that prevails in political debate. In Germany, the citizen is today regarded either as a stubborn and greedy obstacle to market reform that needs disciplining, or as a faint-hearted creature in need of therapy and protection.

This degraded view of people corresponds with a mindset that sees nothing worth defending in the best our societies have achieved. It presumes that passivity and perversity are the defining features of humanity, thereby subverting the creativity, courage and commitment that, in the real world, people practice every day.

Sabine Reul is an editor at the German current affairs magazine NOVO and a translator at Textburo Reul. She writes widely on current affairs and social thought.

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