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Indulging a penchant for paradox

Left and Right simultaneously will not solve any problems, says Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht on the eve of the German election.

What exactly is so irritating about the events leading up to the elections slated for September 18, 2005? Why are we bothered, even after the Federal Constitutional Court decided that the elections, which were precipitated by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's purposefully losing a vote of confidence in parliament, could go ahead? It can hardly be held against a government that it "clears the way for new elections". On the contrary, in the tradition of parliamentary democracy such decisions are generally seen as a sign of statesmanly verve.

But in legal terms it will remain controversial that a chancellor put a confidence vote to parliament without being under intense political pressure to do so. Whatever you make of Schröder, it was remarkable that – together with somewhat less enthusiastic factions of his coalition – he decided to hold fresh elections that not even the most optimistic members of his camp saw any chance of winning. Yet above all it is disconcerting that a government leader who pushed parliament to recognise his own political failure is now waging the election campaign as chancellor and practised leadership candidate.

Even more remarkable is that in so doing, the chancellor is almost agressively ignoring two distinctions that are part and parcel of any basic political understanding. First, in accentuating his own failure with the confidence vote, Schröder followed a mood in society – rather than relying on the political system that should above all provide the frame of reference for his actions as chancellor. He ignored the difference between the political system and society. Secondly, as initiator of fresh elections and chancellor candidate, he let go of the power vested in him, while grabbing at the very power he had just relinquished. In so doing he ignored the difference between power and powerlessness that lies at the very heart of politics. Put another way: he embodies a double paradox, as a chancellor standing behind the social protest against his own policies, and as a ruler who deprives himself of power in a bid to reclaim it.

The social and political thinker Meinhard Miegel has pointed out a multitude of structurally similar paradoxes in the economic systems of the early industrialised countries (North America, Japan and "old" Europe), and painted a series of bleak prognoses. But it seems clear that the tendency to eliminate differences and produce paradoxes applies to Germany on a scale that goes far beyond the purely economic sphere. In no other country is there so much pressure to occupy the political middle as in Germany, with its "Right" parties that outdo their opponents in showing "social responsibility", and "Left" parties that want nothing better than to demonstrate how business-friendly they are.

And paradoxically, the consequences of both kinds of promises, tax cuts and increased social benefits, are saddled on the state. In terms of foreign policy, it has long been unclear whether national interests or the noble objective of full European integration should take the forefront, and people and politicians are increasingly satisfied with being neither German nor European, as long as they act differently than the United States.

German citizens are singularly resolute in refusing to tolerate limitations on their personal freedoms (speed limits for example), but in general they take the notion of freedom for an illusion. They have nothing against elites, as long as the elite status is available to all, in a state-ensured "fair" and open competition – which amounts to the paradox of a socially guaranteed elite status. Former chancellor Helmut Schmidt observed decades ago how in Germany the end of school years and the beginning of retirement age were converging, which is why now no one – and yet at the same time everyone – revindicates the aggressive naivete of youth, or the wise authority of age.

The result of all these contradictions is the by no means unappealing – perhaps even all too "liveable" – picture of the symbiosis of highly individual citizens for whom the state should be both all-powerful and impotent. Chancellor Schröder seems to to have followed – and succumbed to - exactly this paradoxical mandate. But why are paradoxes problematic at all? And above all: are they not a trans-national consequence of the process of globalisation, in which the electronic spread of the most up-to-date knowledge means that every location is both on the periphery and at the heart of things, and in which traditionally poor societies suddenly seem to have the best chances for the future?

Such paradoxes of globalisation are only paradoxical from the viewpoint of the leading industrialised nations, which seem to need time to adapt to the fact that the cheapest and best software is already being produced in Southern India and that it probably won't be long before the cheapest and best cars are made in China. In the meantime the nations of the former "Third World" are concentrating on their new centrality and the creation of future wealth. But the only thing that is really problematic are paradoxes which block the functioning of social systems. Of course it's possible to balance the budget with a combination of social welfare and high taxation, or with low taxes and minimal social contributions – but not by using "Left" and "Right" programmes simultaneously. It's possible to tweak the educational system to produce an educated elite or record levels of enrolment in higher education – but rarely widespread elite status. When these sort of paradoxes cripple the social system, a problematic blockage accumulates "behind the back of the system" you might say, with uncontrollable consequences.

But the German penchant for paradox only starts to look truly hideous when set against the backdrop of history. In the early 20s, German society and politics indulged in paradoxes with what could almost be described as relish, as you can still feel today when you read the historical documents. Isolationist foreign policy and individual doubts about traditional concepts of heroism decisively shattered all determination to act, and German intellectual appetites were whetted for "The Tragic Sense of Life", an ideal borne of a breviary penned by Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno.

As people flirted with the superficiality of the Roaring Twenties, all the while holding tightly to the ideals of authenticity which promised to fathom the depths of all things, a frenetic yes-to-life attitude became the order of the day. People were proud of their newfound worldliness, and of the fact that they no longer needed the idea of life after death. But because they were also unwilling to abandon the big quasi-theological questions, a fascination with death arose - as the moment in both the here-and-now and the hereafter. Because the cult of the charismatic individual and the cult of the people's (or proletarian) collective enjoyed equal popularity, the whole of Europe – not just Germany – became inflamed with desire for a charismatic Führer, Duce or Caudillo.

By the time the First World War had drawn to a close, Oswald Spengler had absorbed all these paradox-inspired values into his intoxicating "historio-morphological" prognosis of "The Decline of the West" which held hundreds of thousands of readers spellbound. The "Faustian" cycle of culture, which Spengler associated with calculating rationality, parliamentary democracy and profit-maximising capitalism, was coming to an end he proclaimed. On the horizon was the rise of the sort of "Caesarism" which, in fear of death and in affirmation of life, would place the fate of its own people into the hands of a dictator.

Amazingly, in the years directly before and after the Nazi seizure of power Spengler refused all declarations of affinity and attempts at personal instrumentalisation which Hitler and his cronies sent his way. Spengler's behaviour proves he truly understood his prognosis of Caesarism as the result of historical analysis – and not as a socio-political Utopia which he had set his heart on. As far as prognoses of this sort go, in the last eighty years we intellectuals have become – quite independently of philosophical and political orientation – sceptical to the point of self-abandonment. And indeed, nothing would be more absurd than to assume that the possibility of a grand coalition (of centre-left and conservative parties - ed) which will certainly be up for discussion after the election on the 18th of September, could be the first step on the path to "Caesarism" in Spengler's sense of the word.

On an abstract level of historical comparison, however, Spengler's prognoses and their horrific historical fulfilment indicate how political thinking, political action and the political system can get out of control when they yield too readily to their faible for paradox – and particularly when this is accompanied by the very best conciliatory intentions.


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on September 13, 2005.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature in the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University in the USA. His most recent publications in English are: "Making Sense in Life and Literature" (Minnesota University Press, 1992), and "Materialities of Communication" (Stanford Press, 1994, coedited with K.Ludwig Pfeiffer).

Translation: jab, lp. - let's talk european